Belgium makes the most of unique spot
Several possible solutions have been presented in recent years to remedy England's difficulties in producing players, but manager Roy Hodgson peered toward one rarely disturbed hornets' nest when quizzed on his interest in Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj on Saturday's edition of Match Of The Day. Hodgson's England, he admitted, did “have our eyes on” the Brussels-born 18-year-old, pending any moves to alter the Home Nations' pact not to naturalise and incorporate players.
Whatever your views on the morality of such a potential change of tack, it was inevitable that -- at some point -- England's thinking would turn to Belgium. The chief components of Europe's most feted young international team have become ubiquitous in England. Marc Wilmots' squad that beat Scotland in their last match in September contained nine current Premier League players and Thibaut Courtois, now entering his third year on loan at Atletico Madrid from Chelsea. Three other English-based players -- Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Thomas Vermaelen -- missed the game through injury.
Such a rich seam of talent in one era does obviously owe something to the alignment of the stars, as much as one might say about the Manchester United tyros who grasped their opportunities in 1995-96. Having so many quality players emerge within a limited period does imply a modicum of luck.
There are myriad other reasons for the current boom, which seems likely to yield a first major final tournament appearance since the 2002 World Cup. This is something that reflects Belgium's cultural diversity as a country -- more on that later -- but as with any successful conveyer belt of player development, the club academies are a logical place to start.
If Euro 2000 was a low watermark and a turning point for Germany, then it was for Belgium too. After being World Cup perennials for the previous two decades, the co-hosts were humiliated, slipping out in the group stage as emerging Turkey beat them to the second qualifying spot behind Italy
Following the tournament, the Belgian FA had a rethink and took a more hands-on role to guiding clubs' development of players, introducing a written guide to best practice in 2001. It included expectations for stages of progression for players, and even endorsed 4-3-3 as the ideal framework to develop youngsters in; a tacit acknowledgment of the great job done by its Dutch neighbours over a long period of time.
It is hard to imagine such bold advice taking root in England, but the authorities' suggestions found receptive ears in Belgium's leading clubs. Given a population of around the 11 million mark, and the already evident marginalisation of the country's top clubs from Europe's elite, it made good sporting and economic sense -- both in the sense of clubs being unable to spend excessively on players and on wanting to sell on after a while. The Standard Liege side that won the club's first title in 25 years in 2008 contained academy graduates Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini.
Yet there were new ideas to go with new guidelines. Much is made of England's lack of qualified coaches compared to its European neighbours, but it's a case of methods as much as it is numbers. Innovation has been evident in cultivating the current Belgian generation.
Back in March 2011, Belgian coach Michel Bruyninckx told BBC Sport's John Sinnott that brain training was the key to producing top-class players. The coach's theory was varying training programmes and working on developing players' mental capacities was imperative to being able to multitask and instinctively problem-solve during real match situations. So under Bruyninckx, drills started simply and became progressively more complicated; more routine practice was combined with doing simple maths exercise at the same time.
Sinnott reported that Bruyninckx took on players from the age of 12, and while he had worked with only a fraction of the players to come through the academies, Porto's Steven Defour and Napoli's Dries Mertens were among them. Defour's ability to fill a number of different positions and Mertens' strength with both feet are attributes which are a good advert for Bruyninckx's ideas.
It's not all about academy magic to rival Germany or Spain, however. The multiculturalism of Belgium's players, both from infancy and adolescence, has meant an exchange of ideas and experiences for those players and the team having a varied palate. So Fellaini's and Kompany's African backgrounds have arguably helped to blur lines where there was previously political and cultural demarcation between the Flemish and Walloons (i.e. French speakers), a division blamed for spilling over from society into the dressing room.
Also, the development of several of Belgium's key players from boys to men outside of the country has helped them grow up quickly, and ferry in different perspectives. Eden Hazard was 14 when he moved to France to link up with Lille, and Thomas Vermaelen was 15 when he enrolled to the Ajax academy. Jan Vertonghen also went to Amsterdam at 16, the same age that Mousa Dembele was when he went to pursue his dreams in the Netherlands. They have all grown up as players out of the country and, as such, the Belgian development system can take only limited credit for them.
Still, these players have had opportunity to foster a sense of a shared cause. The squad which attained fourth place in the 2008 Beijing Olympics included Kompany, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Dembele and Kevin Mirallas. There is no sense of picking and choosing international experience, and this is surely the key indicator of the success of bringing any young players through -- what eventual value they can provide to the senior team.
Still, many will ask why it has taken so long for such a vaunted group to start fulfilling its potential for Les Diable Rouges. Certainly some of that is just the standard of the times. There are no longer any secrets. We are all scouts, seeing matches from across the world in our front rooms and feting players who excite us at an early age, almost assuming the development which should take years. These players have simply progressed at a logical rate.
That there are now experienced players as cornerstones has made a fine set of young players become a team. Kompany, who arrived in England as a fine defender but has since developed into a bona fide leader, on and off the pitch, is perhaps the key example.
If Belgium's productivity gives England a lesson for the future, it is that there is no single magic solution. A series of elements organically combine to bring through the best young players -- and it takes time.