Union let almost its entire starting team leave, but lo and behold: after 12 matchdays it is in the lead with 7, 9 and 11 points ahead of the title favorites Genk, Club Brugge and Antwerp respectively. “I think Chris O’Loughlin should receive the ‘Sporting Director of the Year’ award,” says Nordin Jbari.
(by Christian Vandenabeele)
Left Union this summer: the defenders Bart Nieuwkoop (to Feyenoord), Ismaël Kandouss (to AA Gent) and Siebe Van der Heyden (to RCD Mallorca); the midfielders Senne Lynen (to Werder Bremen), Oussama El Azzouzi (to Bologna) and Teddy Teuma (to Stade Reims); and the attackers Victor Boniface (to Bayer Leverkusen), Simon Adingra (back to Brighton & Hove Albion) and Yorbe Vertessen (back to PSV Eindhoven), the replacement for Dante Vanzeir, who left in February (to New York RB). It was an unprecedented exodus, but after 12 match days they are still in the lead. How is that possible? “That is thanks to the continuity of the past three years,” says Nordin Jbari, Brussels resident, Union watcher for Eleven Sports and ex-striker of Club Brugge. “I mean: the club management works well, those who leave are replaced well, but the mentality and the atmosphere in the stadium are also decisive. It is different from other clubs. There is no pressure. Even if they lose, the crowd is positive. If Club Brugge loses two or three times, it is a crisis. While Union is not obliged by its supporters to win and play champions.”
Isn’t it high time that an award was created to honor the humble culture builder Chris O’Loughlin as the best sporting director of the Jupiler Pro League?
Jbari: “I think he can get the ‘Sporting Director of the Year’ award. But thanks to the supporters, because they make his work easier. They do not put negative pressure on the club. Union has now dramatically lost the title twice in a row, but the supporters were not angry, did not break things up and did not show up at training to express their dissatisfaction. This means that the players can continue to play freely all the time and that there is no pressure on the club management. If Club Brugge or Anderlecht sell their best players, the room is too small, but in Union no one says anything about that. There the public accepts everything. That peace and good atmosphere are necessary to be able to work like this.”
“At Union there is no pressure. Even if they lose, the crowd is positive”
Union sets very high physical and mental demands when recruiting and does a lot of research into the person behind the player. There is no room for egos that are only concerned with themselves.
“That works at Union.”
See the high performance of Charles Vanhoutte (25), who wasn’t even a regular starter at Cercle Brugge, right?
“Indeed. In that positive dynamic and way of working, in which everyone feels good, you can, so to speak, put anyone with the right profile. This continuity also exists in the choice of trainers. Mazzu put down a solid block, Geraerts kept that and started playing a little more offensive and Blessin puts the block very high.”
The three most productive players left with Boniface, Adingra and Teuma, but who do you think is currently by far the most productive team in the Jupiler Pro League with 29 goals? While we keep reading from Genk that Onuachu has not been replaced.
“Yes, work is going well in Union. Boniface and Teuma are not easy to replace, but then suddenly there is Puertas: someone who was already there last season, is now the title holder and is performing very well. Under Blessin, Union plays higher, the ball is recovered closer to the opponent’s goal and that is where his technical qualities come into their own even more. The small Algerian Amoura has added speed and depth to the front. Boniface has not been replaced one-for-one. His departure will be accommodated within the system.”
Union also lost three players at the back with Nieuwkoop, Kandouss and Van der Heyden, but that was also apparently resolved without any problems.
“It is important that Burgess has stayed, someone who can still organize the defense even when he plays poorly. Club Brugge misses such a person. Moreover, the speed of Mac Allister is an added value.”
Will Union Club Brugge score 12 points on Sunday?
“At least we can play without pressure. While Club Brugge should actually win, given its large deficit. Over the past two weeks it has shown that it can do this in difficult circumstances, but the machine has not really left yet. I expect a draw.”
“A top club does not miss out on a title twice”
Will it be the third time lucky for Union in the title battle this season?
“I’m afraid not. But I hope I’m wrong, because they have been deserving of the title in Union for two years now. I think they are less strong than last season and will miss strong players and personalities like Teuma and Boniface in the Champions’ Play-off to make the difference. The question is also: will they be able to maintain this pressure football for an entire season? I can tell from small changes that Blessin realizes that they will have to be fresh in the end. The bank becomes important. Union is in the lead because it works better than its competitors, but I see Club Brugge returning.”
Club Brugge becomes champion?
“So far they have had some problems at the front and at the back, but it is still a very strong team with a good coach. I expected Deila to find his team faster. So he keeps trying to play with Zinckernagel from the left side. That went well at Standard, because he could get in from there, but at Club Brugge he ends up in Hans Vanaken’s zone. I don’t think that works well. So will Club Brugge become champion? Hm, let’s just say that it will be interesting to see whether Union will be able to remain calm until the end this time under the pressure of the denouement. A top club does not miss out on a title twice, as Union did against Club Brugge in the past two seasons. Until further notice, it is not yet a top club.”