Dennis Praet's vision and technique have made Europe's elite take notice
By their own high standards, Anderlecht endured a disappointing 2014-15 campaign, missing out on the Belgian league title for the first time in three years by finishing third behind Club Brugge and first-time champions Gent. It did not, however, serve to dampen interest from abroad in their most talented young players, among them Dennis Praet.
Praet was born in Leuven in central Belgium and joined the Gent academy at the age of 8 after turning out for a couple of youth clubs in his home city. There, he quickly established a reputation as a highly promising young player, and attracted the attention of a number of foreign clubs following a series of impressive displays at youth tournaments. He was even given a guided tour of Arsenal's facilities by then-academy head Liam Brady.
Interest was high, but he turned down other, more lucrative offers to stay in Belgium and join Anderlecht, a club with a reputation for showing faith in young players. It proved to be a good decision. His debut arrived a year later and he then became a regular during the 2012-13 season. Still a scrawny teenager, his contributions were inconsistent at first, but over the last 18 months he has gone from strength to strength, both literally and figuratively.
The young attacking midfielder was named the Jupiler League player of the year for 2014 after a series of excellent performances at the back end of Anderlecht's title-winning 2013-14 campaign and through their early league and Champions League engagements of last season. The second half of his season was disrupted by a back injury, but he still finished the campaign with a highly respectable total of seven goals and nine assists.
The 21-year-old has been a Belgian international at every age group from under-15 upward, and progressed quickly through the age ranks to make his debut for the U-21s just three years after his first appearance at U15 level. His full national team debut followed in November of last year, when he came off the bench for the final 15 minutes of Belgium's friendly victory over Iceland in Brussels.
Praet has been linked with various clubs in the past, but with Anderlecht having missed out on Champions League qualification for the first time in three years, a move could now be in the cards. He recently signed on with the Stellar Group -- who also represent Ashley Cole and Gareth Bale -- and has since been linked with a whole host of potential suitors, among them Aston Villa, Everton, Southampton, Real Sociedad and Zenit St. Petersburg.
Praet is a neat and intelligent attacking midfielder, with good close control and excellent technique and vision. He moves well between the lines, links up effectively with his teammates and is capable of providing an accurate through-ball or shot on goal having advanced forward into the final third. His skill set has been likened to that of Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta; Christian Eriksen would be another apt comparison.
- Technically accomplished
- Excellent vision
- Intelligent movement
- Still a little slight
- A tad conservative in his play at times
Tackling: He seems to have become steadily more determined in his defensive work over the last year and a half, and can now regularly be seen tracking back into midfield in an attempt to win back possession. Most of his challenges are standing tackles, although he does occasionally slide in.
Marking: Rarely tasked with fulfilling a specific marking duty. His primary defensive function is to help the lone striker press the first ball out of defence. He drops back into the midfield zone thereafter.
Heading: Relatively short and lacks sufficient upper-body strength to make up for this deficiency. He is, therefore, not very effective in the air.
Close control: He has an excellent first touch and is capable of neatly manipulating the ball away from challenges in crowded areas. Not the outright quickest, but he does possess a nice initial burst of acceleration which, in combination with his sharp control and good balance on the turn, often allow him to progress forward with the ball at his feet.
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Passing: Links very neatly with his teammates in tight quarters and is unafraid of playing a simple pass to keep things moving if no incisive options are available. Consistently aware of the positioning of his teammates. Can sometimes be a little overly conservative in his passing choices, particularly so given his proven ability to pick out well-weighted through-balls.
Positioning: Intelligently seeks out space with good movement between the lines and across the width of the pitch. Had a lot of joy with well-timed darts into the inside right channel last season, with his assists in the 4-0 win over Westerlo in December and at home to Arsenal in October both arising from this type of run.
Crossing: Generally does a good job of picking out specific targets inside the area, either along the ground or with a high clipped cross, when he does get forward into crossing positions, usually following his above-mentioned movements into the inside right channel.
Finishing: Not a particularly impressive shooter from long range, with the majority of his goals coming from precise, placed efforts into the corners of the net from in and around the penalty area. Produced a nice lobbed finish over the advancing goalkeeper in the 2-2 draw with Kortrijk toward the back end of last season, and rarely panics when he gets into shooting positions inside the area.
What The Experts Say
Ex-Anderlecht striker Tom de Sutter: "Dennis plays like Iniesta. He's got good technique, he's solid, holds onto the ball well, keeps things simple and doesn't panic. His vision of the game is incredible."
Been hyped-up but has matured in past year. With Anderlecht champions, prob. right decision. RT @rorodezign: thoughts on Praet winning... ?- John Chapman (@BelgoFoot) January 15, 2015
Praet has a clear idea of how his career should progress. He has turned down moves to big clubs in the major European leagues on numerous occasions in the past, and has made it clear that his priority at this stage of his career is to play as much football as he possibly can. He appears well-grounded, and has a solid support group of family and friends around him.
The 21-year-old has the necessary technical attributes and intelligence to develop into a highly competent attacking midfielder. He still needs to become a tad bolder in taking charge and imposing himself on games, and he could still do with adding a little bulk to his frame, but such things are relatively easily fixed and should not put off potential suitors.
Whether in the Premier League, elsewhere in Europe or still at Anderlecht, Praet is a player whose reputation is only likely to increase over the coming few years.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.