At just 16 years, 4 months and 25 days Anderlecht’s Youri Tielemans became the third youngest* player to appear in the Champions League when he started the match against Olympiacos yesterday. He is the first player born in 1997 to play in Europe’s premier competition.
That Tielemans is a defensive midfielder makes this achievement all the more remarkable.
There is no position that demands such positional intelligence and tactical discipline. For a 16 year old to establish himself in the first XI of a top level team is remarkable, to do so in the most difficult position on the pitch is rare indeed.
Tielemans has a very wise head on his very young shoulders. At an age when most kids have one thing on their mind he shows excellent concentration on the pitch.
His game is all about anticipation and reaction – skills that are very hard to teach. He appears a natural defensive midfielder. He is rarely out of position and has the athleticism to cover ground very quickly. In addition to his powers of perception he has sophisticated technique and is confident when faced with opponents sometimes more than twice his age.
Tielemans’ transition to the senior Anderlecht side has been almost seamless since he made his debut this July. Although excelling in a deep lying midfield berth there is the possibility that Tielemans could eventually be utilised further forward like his idol Zinedine Zidane.
He certainly has attacking qualities. His passing over long or short distances is sophisticated. While he has the quickness of foot to turn away from opponents long before tackles arrive. He will make a fine playmaker, whether deep or forward lying, the only question is where he will play his football in the long term.
Unsurprisingly his progress has not gone unnoticed. Were he to join any of the clubs that have been linked with him – Manchester United, City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Barcelona, West Bromwich Albion – it is likely he would have to wait a long time before his next Champions League appearance. He has been with Anderlecht since he was five and appears happy to remain in Brussels, for now.
Tielemans parents are keen for him to complete his ssecondary education. He is currently in the fifth year at the Insitute Sint Guido, the same school Romelu Lukaku attended. Both are shining examples of the success of Anderlecht’s Purple Talents project that places emphasis on academic and sporting achievement.
Although at fault for the first of Olympiacos’ three goals on Wednesday the watching scouts will have been impressed with Tielemans’ performance. He is still remarkably raw but everything points to him becoming a fine player.
Belgian football is going through something of a renaissance at the moment with the nation’s efforts to improve its youth development rightly lauded. Tielemans joins a growing list of talented teenagers below an already strong senior squad.
Zakaria Bakkali, Charly Musonda Jr, Andreas Pereira, even Adnan Januzaj should he pledge his future to Belgium, are some of the brightest young players in Europe. The future is looking very good for Belgium.
Musonda and Januzaj were both with Anderlecht before moving to Chelsea and Manchester United and are progressing at slightly different rates to Tielemans. Every route to the top is unique.
There is a huge way to go from making your Champions League debut to becoming an established international player. First team football is the best education a young player can receive. For the time being Tielemans, as he is so often on the pitch, is in exactly the right place.
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* Only Celestine Babayaro (16 years, 2 months, 25 days in 1994) and Alen Halilovic (16 years, 4 months, 6 days in 2012) have played in the Champions League at a younger age than Yoeri Tielemans.
Position: Defensive midfield, centre midfield
Date of Birth: 7 May 1997 (16 years old)
Place of Birth: Sint Peters Leeuw, Belgium
Height: 176 cm
Weight: 72 kg