1. Youri Tielemans
“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.”
It’s been 48 years since Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five, a book full of existentialist quotes such as the aforementioned sentence, and yet, his intriguing premise that free will does not exist lives on today. In his universe, humanity are revealed to be living a lie, believing in a linear progression of time, when it is actually just a single kaleidoscope of time. Certain things, well, everything in Vonnegut’s case, were always going to happen, and there was never going to be anything that could stop them.
No matter what, Youri Tielemans was always going to be #1 on this list, and nothing could ever stop it from happening. It wouldn’t matter if he got banned for a few weeks for a nasty tackle, or sidelined for the start of the season with a hamstring problem, or exposed as the head of an international drug ring, there was never any doubt that Youri Tielemans would be #1. I fumbled around with the top 10, tossed and turned over rankings and borderline spots, and even considered swapping #2 and #3, but this was one thing I never changed, nor would ever come close to changing.
To prove my point, let’s look at the current circumstances. I write this seven days after Youri receives a starting spot against Strasbourg, and fails to impress against the newly promoted side and likely relegation challengers. I write this a few hours after Lille-Monaco, where, despite never being in danger of losing points in an eventual 4-0 win, manager Leonardo Jardim refuses to sub on Tielemans. The sirens of early hiccups and reactionary responses can distract one from the truth, and one must be bounded with constant assurance that this player will come good, in order to stay the course and achieve the goal.
It may not be this week, it may not be this month, it may not even be this season. For the past four years, Youri Tielemans has been linked with every club under the sun, yet, by my estimate, chose both the optimal destination and window to leave. That doesn’t mean he will automatically bench João Moutinho and win a move to Manchester City or Barcelona next summer, it just means he chose wisely, and if it doesn’t work out, then so it goes.
Let’s go to why he’s on the top of the list in the first place. Or moreover, should he even be on here? Many people were clamoring for me to place him on the Breakout Stars list, and frankly, I don’t see why. Chances are you, your mother, your orthodontist, and your second cousin’s fiancée have all known about Tielemans since he was 16. In a few months, Tielemans had gone from signing his first professional contract with Anderlecht to impressing vs. Olympiakos and PSG, to becoming a key cog in Anderlecht’s title-winning team, all while breaking several records.
If his breakthrough onto the scene as a prospect was so rapid and noticeable, his breakthrough onto the scene as a world-class footballer will take the entire world by storm. Still, we can’t end it here, no, we must highlight his foremost mental attribute: a wining mentality.
In the spring of 2014, as Liverpool and Chelsea toppled over each other in the Premier League title race, leaving it for Manchester City to snatch and grab in the final weeks, a similar close finish was happening across the English Channel. As Club Brugge and Standard Liège prepared to fight it out for the league, with Anderlecht 10 points off first by the end of the regular season, Les Mauves et Blancs had other plans. Aided by the newfound importance of Youri Tielemans, who would make 35 performances in total this season, Anderlecht won its last five games in the six-team playoffs, which was good enough to see them go from 10 adrift with 10 playoff games left, to 4 points ahead at first by the time the season ended.
He would continue his first team exploits over the next two seasons as Anderlecht finished third and second, respectively. More importantly, Tielemans would endear himself to millions over the FIFA video game, being given one of the highest potential scores in both FIFA 15 and FIFA 16 Career Mode. Still, apart from a few brilliant performances against the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham, Tielemans never established himself on the international scene. Was he just biding his time in Belgium, or was he another washed up prospect who would never reach the heights that the virtual world of scouting had promised?
In 2016-17, this question was answered. With the late summer sales of Dennis Praet and captain Steven Defour, Anderlecht needed a savior in midfield. Along with fellow homegrown talent Leander Dendoncker, Tielemans’ role and importance skyrocketed this season. He scored 13 goals in 35 appearances, often while donning the armband, and carried Anderlecht to the Europa League quarterfinals and to their first league title since 2014.
Now, assume that you had never seen nor heard of Tielemans prior to this article. You might think, from my description, that he is a “raumdeuter” like Frank Lampard or Dele Alli, or a pure attacking midfielder like Kevin De Bruyne or Christian Eriksen. The fact is, Youri Tielemans is, in every sense of the phrase, a box-to-box midfielder. He is strong, technical, intelligent, and has an eye for goal, checking off every box required for the modern, complete midfielder.
I would be doing a disservice to Anderlecht’s academy if I did not mention the importance it played in his all-around development. The offspring of a Belgian father and a Congolese mother, Tielemans started training with Anderlecht at an age before many children even begin primary school. Anderlecht gives as much importance to tactical growth as they do to technical, mental, and physical growth, as exemplified in the school’s motto: “Turn your passion into your profession.” Many youngsters bump around Europe before finally settling at a club, while other kids wait for years patiently waiting in the youth ranks, learning little more than roulettes and trick moves. At Anderlecht, you are not merely educated; you are inculcated with a way of life.
Thus, while Tielemans played in Belgium for the first four seasons of his professional career, he has always been more than capable of going head to head against some of the Premier League’s finest sides. While 2016-17 saw him win the league title as well as the Belgian Professional Footballer of the Year award, his biggest moment came in April, against Manchester United.
Against the eventual Europa League champions, Youri Tielemans gave a sensational performance over the two legs, a performance perhaps only bettered by that of the list’s runner-up, who gave a memorable performance in the final as Ajax lost to José Mourinho’s men. Youri Tielemans’ Anderlecht would lose too, but not before showing the world why FIFA and Football Manager aficionados grew so fondly of him.
He was playing against what was then the most expensive player in world football, but he was not outgunned. No, instead, he boasted his box-to-box nature, skipping past midfielders on transitions, winning possession, and setting up chances for his teammates. Anderlecht were eliminated in extra time, but Youri Tielemans had advanced pasta this baptism of fire.
If you don’t believe me, take it from his managers. For the national team, Roberto Martinez has preferred him over Radja Nainggolan, arguably the finest midfielder in Italy, causing Nainggolan to retire from international duty this month. And this summer, Leonardo Jardim chose him as Tiémoué Bakayoko’s replacement, spending €25 million on the Belgian international.
In every sense, it seemed like the perfect move. With João Moutinho on the wrong side of 30 and out of the XI, with Champions League football, yet an environment where he can develop without the constant spotlight, and with Monaco, a team notorious for their superb development, surely this could only be a perfect transfer?
So far, the signs are there, but he’s still a long ways from paying back that €25 million. He grabbed a goal against RB Leipzig while making his CL debut for Les Rouges et Blancs, but apart from the goal, he didn’t stand out in midfield. As his biggest fan, I must also be his biggest critic, and Tielemans must improve if he wishes to crack Jardim’s XI.
Still, Jardim never gives automatic starting spots based on potential, just ask Fabinho or Bernardo Silva. As good as he is, he must step up to the level required of Champions League footballers and Ligue 1 title challengers.
More often than not, we see professional athletes–athletes who have been trained for greatness since they were in their diapers, who had their names in the headlines since they were teenagers–fizzle out, crack under the stress, and get carried away with the glamor. If Youri Tielemans does not live up to the hype, it will not have been for this. He isn’t just a rare specimen as a footballer, he’s a one of a kind prospect. He has embraced the hype, added layer after layer to his game, and now, with a move to one of the best run clubs in football under his belt, he has the chance to turn the tag of world class prospect into world class footballer.
By: Zach Lowy/@ZCalcio