AC Milan appear to be the leaders in the race to sign Charles De Ketelaere, the latest talent to roll down the conveyor belt of Belgian football prodigies.
The new Serie A champions were not alone in their admiration for the versatile 6-foot-3 21-year-old striker. Leeds United and Leicester City certainly have him on their lists but, again, De Ketelaere has been on most clubs’ radar after a stellar season in the Jupiler Pro League as Club Bruges won their 18th domestic title. and the third in a row.
It is testament to De Ketelaere’s versatility that he has been identified by various clubs across the continent to fill different roles within their squads.
In fact, Milan see him as a player who can kill several birds with one stone if he joins them. He would like to move up in the right and number 10 positions because head coach Stefano Pioli usually uses a 4-2-3-1 formation, and De Ketelaere has played both roles for Club Brugge, and a few more too.
De Ketelaere has played in every position in the front row of his current club: on the left, on the right, as a second striker and then last season mainly as a centre-back; he has even played 8 and left back.
But this is the thing about the senior international of eight caps, and many of the interested parties seem to be asking this too: what is his better position?
“Actually, he’s a No. 8 or No. 10 insider, but he rarely plays this position,” Belgian journalist Sven Claes believes.
It is his technical ability and tactical intelligence, despite his young age, that have made De Ketelaere so versatile. European scouts note how he makes highly intelligent runs, has the quality to bring others into the game and has a similar physical presence and walk to Brazil’s 2007 Ballon d’Or winner Kaká.
“He’s already really phenomenal at handling the ball,” adds Claes. “His decisions from him under pressure from him are usually very impressive. He also knows how to use his body well in duels despite not being a cinder block, and he has unexpected moves.
“The big difference last season is now he’s adding numbers to his game, which is what it’s all about when it comes to pushing.”
With 18 goals and 10 assists in 49 club appearances last season, De Ketelaere is certainly attracting a lot of attention, including from the Premier League. However, his 14 league goals in 33 games, compared to his peers playing in central attacking positions: Deniz Undav, on loan at Brighton, from Union Saint-Gilloise was top scorer with 25 and Michael Frey managed 22 for Royal Antwerp, both in the same number of games: leave the impression that De Ketelaere is not an absolute number 9 or a natural goalscorer.
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Leicester feel his versatility could fill the right-back position that has been a problem since Riyad Mahrez moved to Manchester City four years ago. They have tried different potential solutions, Rachid Ghezzal, Fousseni Diabate and Cengiz Under, without success.
De Ketelaere could be the answer at last and he is adaptable enough to fit into other roles as manager Brendan Rodgers frequently changes formations, but Leicester fears his shares have risen so fast that he could now be out of his league financially. especially since they still are. to make room for himself in his squad this summer with outings.
It’s easy to see why they wanted him to be that left-footed player who can come in down the right wing and affect the game.
De Ketelaere has certainly shown that he can do that with Club Brugge, as he showed here against Charleroi. Confronted by three defenders, he pushes into the box and cuts through them, with the ball on the outside of his left foot, to create an opportunity.
He also often plays down the left, and in the example below, against RB Leipzig in the Champions League, he scores a goal using his pace to reach the byline and return a ball to midfielder Hans Vanaken, at the same time as shows the vision to detect his late run from the captain in the box.
Unlike Leicester at the moment, Leeds have transfer income on the horizon through sales of Kalvin Phillips bound for Manchester City and the in-demand Raphinha.
The De Katelaere camp is well aware of their interest, and the Yorkshire club make no secret of the fact that they like it, although they know that Milan are the favourites, especially if Club Bruges’ valuation continues to rise. Milan is also believed to be De Ketelaere’s preferred destination.
Leeds see the Belgian more as an inside forward than a winger, almost a secondary striker who could play as a false nine or in support of Patrick Bamford, and he is even more effective in this role.
He shows off his creativity here in this set of screenshots against Anderlecht last season as he shows his vision to execute a key pass, picking out Noa Lang on the spin with an accurate ball.
It was a similar result in the first half of the same game when he beat two defenders with a clipped pass to the outside of his left boot.
Its completion has also been impressive.
Here, away at OH Leuven, De Ketelaere appears in the left channel and drives the defender back before cutting to his left and picking the bottom corner for the first of two goals he scored in the game.
His second came from a run down the right channel, although he showed his confidence in his left foot for the finish and also needed a deflection to get in.
That was a lucky result, but there is mitigation when you have a left foot as good as De Ketelaere’s, as he shows here against Zulte Waregem. Faced with four defenders on the edge of the box, you can switch to your left and select the bottom corner once more.
While he is certainly versatile, he was more productive last season as a main striker, scoring 12 of his 18 goals and providing seven of his 10 assists from a central position, although he also tended to drift.
De Ketelaere’s pizza wheel (below), created using Smarterscout technology, which gives players a rating from zero to 99, relating to how often they take a given action compared to others playing their position or how effective they are at it, details their attack. potential.
De Ketelaere tends to sneak between the lines, make deep, incisive runs and combine with his other attacking teammates to create chances. He is excellent at moving the ball forward with progressive passes (83 of 99) and carries the ball well, with a 57 of 99 dribbling rating, he uses his size to roll and spin defenders when they get too tight before hitting. speed up. .
He’s also great at generating chances thanks to his attacking attributes. (ball progression xG: 94 out of 99).
De Ketelaere is also good off the ball in any position he is asked to play. He contributes well to turnovers and interceptions (88 of 99), and he can press high up the field, a trait that would have been another factor in the amount of interest in him. He gets a score of 90 out of 99 for interrupting opponents’ moves.
In the OH Leuven match mentioned above, De Ketelaere also pressured a defender into making a mistake and then had a free run towards goal before squaring off with a teammate.
Inevitably, given his age (he turned 21 in March), there are areas for improvement.
Among these are your shot selection and shot volume. Adjusted for comparison to the Premier League standard, his rating is only 14 out of 99, meaning he shoots much less on average than most other players in his position, in this case primarily as a striker. . Surprisingly, considering his height, he also scores low in aerial duels, scoring only 13 out of 99.
Finally, De Ketelaere also needs to improve his ability to retain possession, rating just 38 out of 99 here.
But it is clear that De Ketelaere has the talent to become another great Belgian star, and that he has the mental toughness to face a transfer to a club of the stature of Milan, where the level of expectations will be high and the pressure will be intense.
Last season was only his third in senior football, but he has already made the step up to full international level, earning a first cap in November 2020, scoring his first goal for Belgium in the Premier League third-place game. Nations last October with Italy and coming off the bench in two of the four games this month in that same competition.
Nicknamed King Carlos by Club Bruges fans, he is shy and avoids being the center of attention. De Ketelaere is also a smart lad, as he studied law at university until his playing career took off.
In December 2020, he won the Most Promising Sportsman of the Year award at the Belgian Sports Awards, an award that had previously gone to Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi and tennis player Kim Clijsters, and has spoken of how he had played tennis at a high level. He — becoming champion of Flanders in his age group at age 10 — before choosing to pursue football, as he couldn’t deal with losing individually.
“Tennis is much more contentious when you lose,” he told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “In football it is easier to find excuses when things go wrong; in tennis, it’s just you. You are the only one to blame if you play poorly, and I couldn’t handle my own mistakes.
“I couldn’t stand cheaters, those guys who screamed when the ball was out and it wasn’t. Then sometimes I would get mad and hit all the balls on purpose, or even stop playing. My mom tried to help me with that, because she was embarrassed sometimes. She even had a coach that she had to meditate with to calm me down.”
Milan may be in the driving seat in this race, but there is still hope for Leeds and Leicester.
Milan’s transfer activity has been delayed by the situation surrounding the contracts of Serie A champions Paolo Maldini and sporting director Ricky Massara, but both extended their deals last night, so that problem is already solved. His only signing so far has been De Ketelaere’s compatriot, Origi, who arrives on a free transfer after exhausting his contract with Liverpool.
There was a debate over where to allocate most of their budget and ultimately Milan decided against buying Sven Botman, who instead moved from Lille to Newcastle United, due to the way Pierre Kalulu has progressed as Fikayo’s teammate. Tomori in the center of the back.
A right-back or number 10 is seen as more of a priority: Milan struggled last season in terms of scoring and creating chances, while their defense was the best in Serie A.
The fight for one of the brightest young talents in Europe is not over yet.
(Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)