Let’s take a look at the club RSC Anderlecht.
Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht, founded 1908.
A club in the capital of Europe, with thousands of supporters not just from the Brussels region but from all over Belgium.
A club with a rich history. With a trophy cabinet filled to the brim.
Thirty-four domestic titles. Nine times Belgian Cup winners. Ten times winner of the Belgian Supercup.
Five European Cups.
The days that Anderlecht was a European powerhouse are long gone though, those successes were in the 1970s and ’80s, so some 40-50 years ago. The last domestic successes were the title and Supercup in 2017, now more than 5 years ago.
After that, things started to fall apart.
After those last domestic successes, the club’s owners wanted to sell. After a surprise bid RSCA was sold to Belgian billionnaire entrepreneur Marc Coucke effective March 2018. Already having a controlling stake in another 1st division club in Belgium (KV Oostende), Coucke was not among the initial interested parties. However, after the majority of his shares in that club were sold, he was free to make his move to become majority shareholder at RSC Anderlecht.
By owning a bigger club, his dream of achieving domestic success with a football club would become reality sooner. Or so he thought.
Unfortunately, things do not always go the way one hopes or plans.
There were some skeletons in the closet at Anderlecht, the new owner quickly found out. Right now, the club is dealing with the aftermath of bad management, financial and otherwise.
Late 2018, there was an investigation by the Belgian justice department into fraud and other malpractices in Belgian football. One of the things that came to light was the power some player agents had in several clubs. One of those clubs was RSC Anderlecht.
After this revelation, Anderlecht put in place a new system for dealing with agents.
The management at the club was also under review, former and current.
In their hurry to right the wrongs and make Anderlecht great again (no pun intended) some terrible financial choices were made. Their four most expensive incoming transfers of all time were done between 2016 and 2019. None of them play at RSCA now. All of them sold at a loss.
- Nicolae Stanciu: bought for €10m in August 2016, sold for €4m a year and a half later.
- Bubacarr Sanneh: bought for €8m in 2018, released on a free transfer 3 years later. Side note: Anderlecht bought him from FC Midtjylland, a club that had bought the player for €200k only 7 months prior.
- Michel Vlap: bought for €7m in 2019, sold for €2m 3 years later.
- Sven Kums: bought for €6.5m in 2017, sold for €1.5m three years later. Side note: the player was already 29 when RSCA bought him. He was a proven player, but they were unable to get the most out of him.
For a club from a small country, where budgets are relatively small compared to clubs in the big 5 European leagues, this sort of decisions have dire consequences.
There were also several players with exuberant contracts given by the previous management, which was fine when Anderlecht still could rely on income from their succesful domestic or European campaigns. When those revenue streams dried out however, those player contracts quickly became a noose tightening around the club’s neck.
We are now late 2022, and there is one player remaining with such a contract. (Trebel)
Anderlecht tried to sell him, but to no avail. Is he such a bad player then, all of a sudden? No, but he is aging, and he would not settle for less than what his contract at Anderlecht provided him.
In June ’23 however, his contract runs out.
Meanwhile, the club has made it their business plan to sell their most promising talent each year. Anderlecht certainly has that going for them – their youth academy is considered one of the best. In the world.
Let’s look at their most lucrative outgoing transfers for the last few years:
2022: Sergio Gomez to Man City. Bought for €3.5m, sold for €13m a year later.
2021: Albert Sambi Lokonga to Arsenal. Academy player, sold for €17.5m.
2020: Jérémy Doku to Rennes. Academy player, sold for €26m.
2019: Leander Dendoncker to Wolverhampton. Academy player, sold for €15m. (after loan)
This type of business plan can be a very lucrative one indeed. Take a look at Ajax, or the Portuguese big three, those are the prime examples for any club wanting to train young talents in order to sell them at a premium.
Of course, with the money earned from selling talents, you need to make wise investments. To make sure that your first team has enough quality to shine in European competitions on a regular basis. Not only will such games serve as a showcase for your talents, it will also help them develop further.
After the last domestic title in 2017, Anderlecht finished in places 3, 6, 8 (the position they were in when the competitino was stopped due to Covid), 4 and 3.
So no more Champions League participation, that’s the first conclusion. Since Belgium has – in this period – one direct participant and one possible through qualifying rounds, and Anderlecht consistently failed to finish in the top 2.
The 2018/19 season saw them playing in the group stage for the Europa League, after finishing 3rd in the Belgian league. Sadly, Anderlecht finished 4th and last in their group. So much for a showcase.
19/20 and 20/21 were seasons without European football, for the first time in a very long time.
In 2021 they were back, even if it was ‘only’ in the Conference League. After an easy 3rd round qualifier, Anderlecht faced Vitesse in the play-off round. And lost.
2022/23 then, and once again the Conference League. This time the qualifying rounds did not stop them, and qualification for the group stage was in the bag.
There is still a chance to qualify for the next round, even.
Unfortunately, that is about the only thing that is positive about this season.
After the departure of Anderlecht icon Vincent Kompany as head coach at the end of last season, Felice Mazzu was appointed to replace him. A coach with a proven track record in the Belgian league, albeit at smaller clubs, who had nevertheless coached local Brussels rivals Union to a second place finish the previous season. The hope was that he could do the same at ‘big neighbour’ Anderlecht. With 8 losses in the first 14 games of the season, it’s fair to say he failed to deliver. This led to an unfortunate climax in the 14th game, the Belgian Clasico at Standard Liège. With about 30 minutes left on the clock, Standard scored the 3-1, after which some Anderlecht fans started throwing fireworks onto the pitch. The referee had no other option than to end the match, resulting in a 5-0 victory for Standard by forfeit. The other result of these events was the sacking of Felice Mazzu the next day.
To blame Mazzu for everything that is wrong at Anderlecht would be too easy though.
What can Anderlecht do to get out of this slump?
First of all, not panic. There are plenty of good things going on at Anderlecht.
The youth academy keeps providing exciting young talents to work with, as is evident by the emergence of yet another batch that make regular first team appearances, including Julien Duranville (16), Mario Stroeykens (18), Zeno Debast (19) and Kristian Arnstad (19).
There are several young players who already have some years of experience at first team level, such as Yari Verschaeren (21), Francis Amuzu (23) and Hannes Delcroix (23).
One area the current squad is clearly lacking in, is on offense. Portuguese talent Fabio Silva was brought in from Wolves on loan, and one can’t say he hasn’t performed, scoring 9 goals in 22 matches across all competitions. Besides him though there are few options. Last season they had Joshua Zirkzee (on loan from Bayern) and Christian Kouamé (on loan from Fiorentina) who provided ample attacking options. Those two were replaced by Fabio Silva and Sebastiano Esposito. The latter’s performances are not up to par until now, only scoring 2 goals in 19 appearances. Though most of those appearances were coming off the bench, it’s safe to say more was expected.
But, is that the player’s fault, or the people responsible for bringing him in? Should the management have opted for a slightly more experienced striker instead? To be fair, Esposito isn’t even a true striker.
Of course, there is the tight budget that Anderlecht has to work with. Because of this they have chosen to bring in players on loan rather than aiming for definitive transfers.
However, two of the three players that they did purchase are not even being used at the moment. The two most expensive ones at that.
It is clear that in this, Anderlecht made some mistakes. We believe they should have invested more in established players instead of purchasing young talents – they have their own world-class youth academy to provide them with those after all.
But it does seem they realized this themselves, because at the end of the last transfer period they brought in Amadou Diawara and Jan Vertonghen. Two seasoned players, the former just wanting to play football again after two difficult years at AS Roma, the latter coming back to Belgium after it was made clear that he should not expect to play many games at Benfica anymore.
For Anderlecht, bringing in players of such caliber is huge. But, in Diawara’s case also a bit of a risk. Only three years ago Roma bought him for €21m, but he did not play much the last two years. And it showed in his first few games for Anderlecht. Once his physical condition is back at 100% though, he should be able to help lift the team to a higher level.
But what about right now?
Looking at the current situation, obviously there is no scenario that will make everything right in an instant, no waving a magic wand to fix things. This season they just need to focus on grinding and improving in training, getting all players to 100% and all heads in the same direction. Results will come sooner or later. The effect a new head coach will have could help speed up the process of course.
The aim for this season, and the next 5 or so, should be to qualify for any European Cup. They can dream about winning the Belgian league of course, but their budget should not be built around it – as it was in the past, when the revenue from the Champions League was almost a certainty at Anderlecht. Now, qualifying for the group stage of the Conference league is already viewed as a huge accomplishment.
It is a start, something to build upon.
Getting the club back to consistent top 2 finishes, that will take more time. Especially because the other Belgian clus are not sitting idly by and waiting for Anderlecht to catch up. But with time and effort, making the right decisions while avoiding past mistakes, and also being able to hold on a bit longer to their best talents until an offer comes by they truly can’t refuse, Anderlecht should become a title contender once again.
Seeing the club get back to its former status in Europe, that will probably always remain a dream among the supporters.