AC Milan appear to be the favorites in the race to sign Charles De Ketelaere, the latest talent to roll on the treadmill of Belgian footballing wonderkids.
The new Serie A champions weren’t alone in their admiration for the versatile 21-year-old 6ft3in striker. Leeds United and Leicester City certainly have him on their lists – but again De Ketelaere has been on most clubs’ radars after a stellar season in the Jupiler Pro League as Club Brugge won an 18th domestic title and a third in a row.
It is a 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 could kill several birds with one stone if he joined them. They would like to play in the right-wing and No.10 positions as head coach Stefano Pioli typically uses a 4-2-3-1 formation, and De Ketelaere has played in both of those roles for Brugge – and a few others too.
De Ketelaere has played in all positions on the front line for his current club – left, right, as a second striker, then last season mainly as a centre-back; he even played as a No.8 and a left-back.
But here’s the thing with the eight-capped senior international, and many interested parties seem to be wondering that too – what is his better position?
“He’s actually an undercover No 8 or No 10, but he rarely plays in that position,” said Belgian journalist Sven Claes.
It was his technical ability and tactical intelligence, despite his young years, that made De Ketelaere so versatile. European scouts note how he runs very smart, has the quality to play others and has a physical presence and gait similar to Brazil’s 2007 Ballon d’Or winner Kaka.
“He’s already really phenomenal in ball management,” adds Claes. “His decisions under pressure are often very impressive. He also knows how to use his body well in duels despite not being a cinder block, and has some unexpected moves.
“The big difference last season is that he’s now adding numbers to his game, and that’s what it’s about when the going gets tough.”
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 striking positions – Union Saint-Gilloise’s Deniz Undav of Brighton was top scorer with 25 and Michael Frey got 22 for the Royal Antwerp, both in the same number of games – giving the impression that De Ketelaere is not an outright No.9 or a natural goalscorer.
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Leicester believe his versatility could fill the right flank position which has been a problem since Riyad Mahrez moved to Manchester City four years ago. They tried different potential solutions — Rachid Ghezzal, Fousseni Diabate and Cengiz Under — without success.
De Ketelaere could finally be the answer and is adaptable enough to slot into other roles as manager Brendan Rodgers changes formation frequently, but Leicester fear his stock has risen so quickly he could now be out of line. their reach financially, especially since they still are. to make room in their team this summer with outings.
It’s easy to see why they wanted him to be that left-footed player who can enter from the right flank and affect play.
De Ketelaere has certainly shown he can do it with Club Brugge, like here against Charleroi. Faced with three defenders, he rushes towards the surface and cuts in the middle of them, ball outside the left foot, to create a chance.
He often also plays on the left and in this next example, against RB Leipzig in the Champions League, scores a goal using his pace to reach the touchline and bring a ball past midfielder Hans Vanaken, while showing the vision to spot his captain’s late run into the box.
Unlike Leicester at the moment, Leeds have transfer income on the horizon via the sales of Kalvin Phillips to Manchester City and the in-demand Raphinha.
De Katelaere’s side are well aware of his interest, and the Yorkshire club make no secret that they like him, even though they know Milan are the favourites, especially if Club Brugge’s valuation continues to rise. . Milan is also believed to be De Ketelaere’s favorite destination.
Leeds see the Belgian more as an inside striker than a winger, almost a secondary striker who could play as a false nine or in support of Patrick Bamford – and he’s even more effective in that role.
He demonstrates his creativity here in this series of screenshots against Anderlecht last season as he shows his vision to execute a key pass, picking Noa Lang on the turn with an accurate through ball.
It was a similar result in the first half of the same game when he beat two defenders with a cut pass to the outside of his left boot.
Its finish is also impressive.
Here at OH Leuven, De Ketelaere appears in the left channel and pulls the defender back before cutting to his left and choosing 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 he relied on his left foot for the finish and also needed a deflection to enter.
It was a happy result, but there is an attenuation when you have a left foot as good as De Ketelaere’s, as he demonstrates here against Zulte Waregem. Faced with four defenders on the edge of the area, he is able to shift to his left and win the bottom corner again.
While certainly versatile, he was most 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 had tendency to drift.
De Ketelaere’s pizza wheel (below) – created using Smarterscout technology, which gives players a rating from zero to 99, relative to either how often they perform a given action versus d others playing their position, or their effectiveness – details his potential attack.
De Ketelaere has a tendency to infiltrate between the lines, make deep and incisive runs and combine with his other attacking teammates to create chances. He’s excellent at moving the ball forward with progressive passes (83 of 99) and he carries the ball well, with a dribbling rating of 57 of 99, using his height to roll and spin defenders when they become too tight before accelerating. .
He is also excellent at generating chances through his attacking attributes. (xG of ball progression: 94 out of 99).
De Ketelaere is also good off the ball no matter what position he is asked to play. He contributes well to ball recoveries and interceptions (88 of 99), and he can press high up the field, a trait that would have been another factor in his interest in him. He scores 90 out of 99 for disrupting his opponents’ moves.
In the OH Leuven game mentioned above, De Ketelaere also pushed a defender into a mistake and then had a free kick on goal before battling a team-mate.
Inevitably given his age — he only turned 21 in March — there are areas for improvement.
Among these are his shot selection and shot volume. Adjusted to compare to Premier League standard, his rating is only 14 out of 99, meaning he shoots far less on average than the majority of other players in his position, in this case mainly as a ‘attacker. Surprisingly, given his size, he also scores poorly in aerial duels, at just 13 out of 99.
Finally, De Ketelaere also needs to improve his ability to retain possession, scoring just 38 out of 99 here.
But it’s clear the talent is there for De Ketelaere to become another big Belgian star, and he has the mental toughness to face a move to a club of Milan’s stature, where the level of expectation will be high and the pressure will be intense.
Last season was only his third in senior football, but he has already made the leap to full international level, earning a first cap in November 2020, scoring his first Belgium goal in the third place play-off in the Nations League last October with Italy and coming off the bench in two of this month’s four games in the same competition.
Nicknamed King Charles by Club Brugge fans, he is shy and avoids the limelight. De Ketelaere is also a smart boy, having 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, a prize that has already been awarded to Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi and tennis player Kim Clijsters, and he explained how he had played tennis at a high level. – becoming Flemish champion in his age group at 10 – before opting to pursue football instead as he couldn’t bear to lose on an individual basis.
“Tennis is much more confrontational when you lose,” he told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “In football, it’s easier to find excuses when things go wrong; in tennis, there is only you. You are solely at fault if you play badly, and I couldn’t handle my own mistakes.
“I couldn’t stand cheaters – those boys who were screaming when the ball was out and it wasn’t. Sometimes I got angry and hit all the balls on purpose, or even stopped playing. My mother tried to help me with that, because sometimes she was ashamed, I even had a trainer with whom I had to meditate to calm down.
Milan may be in the driver’s 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 technical director Paolo Maldini and sporting director Ricky Massara, but both extended their deals last night so that issue is now resolved. Their only signing so far is De Ketelaere’s compatriot Origi, who arrives on a free transfer after letting his contract at Liverpool run out.
There was a debate over where to allocate most of their budget, and ultimately Milan decided against buying Sven Botman, who instead went from Lille to Newcastle United, due to the way Pierre Kalulu has progressed as the centre-back partner of Fikayo Tomori.
A right-winger or No.10 is considered more of a priority – Milan struggled at times last season in terms of scoring and creating chances, when their defense was the best in Serie A.
The fight for one of Europe’s brightest young talents is not over yet.
(Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)