AC Milan appear to be the front-runners in the race to sign Charles De Ketelaere, the latest talent to roll down Belgian football’s conveyor belt of prodigies.
The new Serie A champions weren’t alone in their admiration for the versatile, 21-year-old 6ft 3in forward. Leeds United and Leicester City certainly have him on their lists — but then again, De Ketelaere has been on most clubs’ radars after a stellar season in the Jupiler Pro League as Club Bruges stormed to an 18th national title and third in a row.
It is testament to De Ketelaere’s versatility that he has been identified by various clubs across the continent to fulfil differing roles within their squads.
In fact, Milan see him as a player that can kill several birds with one stone should he join them. They would like to upgrade in the right-wing and No 10 positions because head coach Stefano Pioli typically uses a 4-2-3-1 formation, and De Ketelaere has played in both of those roles for Bruges — and a few more too.
De Ketelaere has played in every position across the front line for his current club — off the left, the right, as a second striker and then last season mainly as a central one; he has even played as a No 8 and at left wing-back.
But here’s the thing with the eight-cap senior international, and many of the interested parties seem to be wondering this too — what is his best position?
“He is actually an infiltrating No 8 or No 10, but rarely plays in this position,” believes Belgian journalist Sven Claes.
It is his technical ability and tactical intelligence, despite his tender years, that have made De Ketelaere so versatile. European scouts note how he makes very intelligent runs, has the quality to bring others into play and has a similar physical presence and gait to Brazil’s 2007 Ballon d’Or winner Kaka.
“He is already really phenomenal in handling the ball,” Claes adds. “His decisions under pressure are often very impressive. He also knows how to use his body well in duels despite not being a block of concrete, and has unexpected movements.
“The big difference last season is he is now adding numbers to his game, which is what it’s about when push comes to shove.”
With 18 goals and 10 assists from 49 club appearances last season, De Ketelaere is certainly attracting a lot of attention, including from the Premier League. However, his 14 league goals in 33 games, when compared to his peers playing in central striking positions — Brighton loanee Deniz Undav of Union Saint-Gilloise was top scorer with 25 and Michael Frey got 22 for Royal Antwerp, both in the same number of matches — leave the impression De Ketelaere isn’t an out-and-out No 9 or a natural goalscorer.
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Leicester feel his versatility could fill the right-flank position that has been a problem ever since Riyad Mahrez moved to Manchester City four years ago. They’ve tried different potential solutions — Rachid Ghezzal, Fousseni Diabate and Cengiz Under — without success.
De Ketelaere could be the answer at last and is adaptable enough to slot into other roles because manager Brendan Rodgers frequently changes formations, but Leicester fear his stock has risen so fast that he could now be out of their reach financially, especially as they are yet to make any room in their squad this summer with outgoings.
It is easy to see why they wanted him to be that left-footed player who can come in off the right flank and affect play.
De Ketelaere has certainly shown he can do that with Club Bruges, as demonstrated here against Charleroi. Faced with three defenders, he drives towards the box and cuts through the middle of them, with the ball on the outside of his left foot, to create an opportunity.
He often also plays on the left and in this next example, against RB Leipzig in the Champions League, makes a goal by using his pace to reach the byline and pull a ball back to midfielder Hans Vanaken, while also showing the vision to spot his captain’s late run into the box.
Unlike Leicester at the moment, Leeds do have transfer income on the horizon via the sales of Manchester City-bound Kalvin Phillips and the in-demand Raphinha.
De Katelaere’s camp are well aware of their interest, and the Yorkshire club are not making a secret of the fact they like him, although they know Milan are the favourites — especially if Club Bruges’ valuation continues to rise. Milan are also believed to be De Ketelaere’s preferred destination.
Leeds see the Belgian more as an inside forward than a winger, almost a secondary forward who could play as a false nine or in support of Patrick Bamford — and he is even more effective in this role.
He demonstrates his creativity here in this set of screengrabs against Anderlecht last season as he shows his vision for executing a key pass, picking out Noa Lang on the turn with a pinpoint ball.
It was a similar outcome in the first half of the same match when he beat two defenders with a clipped pass off the outside of his left boot.
His finishing has also been impressive.
Here, away at OH Leuven, De Ketelaere pops up in the left channel and has the defender back-pedalling before cutting onto his left and picking out the bottom corner for the first of two goals he scored in the game.
His second came from a run down the right channel, although he showed his reliance on his left foot for the finish and it also needed a deflection to go in.
That was a fortunate outcome but there is mitigation when you have a left foot as good as De Ketelaere’s, as he demonstrates here against Zulte Waregem. Faced with four defenders on the edge of the box, he is able to shift onto his left and pick out the bottom corner once again.
While he is certainly versatile, he was most productive during last season as a main striker, scoring 12 of his 18 goals and providing seven of his 10 assists from a central position, although he also tended to drift wide.
De Ketelaere’s pizza wheel (below) — created using Smarterscout technology, which gives players a rating from zero to 99, relating to either how often they perform a given action compared with others playing their position or how effective they are at it — details his attacking potential.
De Ketelaere tends to infiltrate between the lines, make deep, incisive runs, and combine with his other attacking team-mates to create chances. He is excellent in moving the ball forwards with progressive passes (83 out of 99) and he carries the ball well, with a dribbling rating of 57 out of 99, using his size to roll and turn defenders when they get too tight before accelerating away.
He is also excellent at generating chances as a result of his attacking attributes (xG from ball progression: 94 out of 99).
De Ketelaere is also good without the ball in whatever position he is asked to play. He contributes well in ball recoveries and interceptions (88 out of 99), and he can press high up the pitch, a trait which would have been another factor in the amount of interest in him. He gets a score of 90 out of 99 for disrupting opponents’ moves.
In the OH Leuven game mentioned above, De Ketelaere also pressured a defender into a mistake and then had a free run on goal before squaring to a team-mate.
Inevitably given his age — he only turned 21 in March — there are areas for improvement.
Among these are his shot selection and volume of shots. Adjusted to compare with the Premier League standard, his ranking is just 14 out of 99, meaning he shoots much less on average than the majority of other players in his position, in this case mainly as a striker. Surprisingly, considering his height, he also scores low in aerial duels, at just 13 out of 99.
Finally, De Ketelaere also needs to improve his ability to retain possession, rating only 38 out of 99 here.
But it is clear the talent is there for De Ketelaere to become another top Belgium star, and that he has the mental strength to cope with a move to a club of the stature of Milan, where the level of expectation will be high and the pressure will be intense.
Last season was only his third in senior football but he has already taken the step up to full international level, earning a first cap in November 2020, scoring his first Belgium goal in last October’s Nations League third-place play-off with Italy and coming off the bench in two of this month’s four games in that same competition.
Dubbed King Charles by Club Bruges fans, he is shy and shuns the limelight. De Ketelaere is an intelligent lad too, having studied law at university until his playing career took off.
In December 2020, he won most promising sportsperson of the year at the Belgian Sports Awards, a prize that has previously gone to Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi and tennis player Kim Clijsters, and he has spoken of how he had played tennis to a high standard — becoming Flemish champion in his age group at 10 — before choosing to pursue football instead as he couldn’t deal with losing on an individual basis.
“Tennis is much more confrontational when you lose,” he told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “In football, it is easier to find excuses when things go wrong; in tennis, it’s only you. You are the only one at fault if you play badly, and I couldn’t handle my own mistakes.
“I couldn’t stand cheaters — those boys who would scream when the ball was out and it wasn’t. Then sometimes I would get mad and hit all the balls away on purpose, or even stop playing. My mum tried to help me with that, because sometimes she was ashamed. I even had a trainer I had to meditate with to calm me down.”
Milan may occupy the driver’s seat in this race but there is hope for the likes of Leeds and Leicester still.
Milan’s transfer activity has been delayed by the situation surrounding the contracts of the Serie A champions’ technical director Paolo Maldini and sporting director Ricky Massara, but both extended their deals last night so that issue is now resolved. Their only signing so far has been De Ketelaere’s compatriot Origi, who arrives on a free transfer having let his Liverpool contract run out.
There was a debate about where to allocate the biggest chunk of their budget, and eventually, Milan decided against buying Sven Botman, who instead went from Lille to Newcastle United, because of the way Pierre Kalulu has progressed as Fikayo Tomori’s centre-back partner.
A right-winger or No 10 is considered more of a priority — Milan struggled at times last season in terms of incision and chance creation, whereas their defence was the best in Serie A.
The tussle for one of Europe’s brightest young talents isn’t over yet.
(Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)