From the very beginning, Adrien Silva probably should have known that his time at Leicester would be jinxed. Signed from Sporting Lisbon in summer 2017, his paperwork landed on FIFA’s desk 14 seconds after the transfer deadline closed. It might has well have been 14 days. FIFA took a hard stance on the deadline, and the £22M signee was declared ineligible for the Foxes until the following January, when the next transfer window opened. (Fun fact: Leicester assigned him the No. 14 shirt because of the ordeal.)
But Silva’s bad luck didn’t end there. While he twiddled his thumbs waiting for January, Leicester replaced manager Craig Shakespeare with Claude Puel. It quickly became clear that Silva did not fit into the new gaffer’s plans. The 29 year-old has featured just 5 times this season, and consequently he requested a move away from the King Power Stadium. His wish was granted on January’s Deadline Day with a loan to Ligue 1 side Monaco in exchange for Youri Tielemans. And this time his paperwork beat the buzzer.
While Silva never settled into the side at Leicester, the club anticipates big things from Tielemans. Let’s drill down into the 21 year-old Belgian’s backstory to see why Leicester’s expectations are so high.
Even in a country blessed with a deep pool of footballing talent, Youri Tielemans was a wunderkind. On October 2, 2013, the midfielder became the youngest Belgian to ever play in the Champions League, taking the pitch for Anderlecht against Olympiacos at the tender age of 16. He played 29 games for Anderlecht that season on his way to claiming the Belgian Young Professional Football Player of the Year award, an honor he would win again the following year.
In 2016-17 Anderlecht won Belgium’s First Division A, with Tielemans featuring in 37 league matches and scoring 13 goals. The club also advanced all the way to the Europa League quarterfinals that year, Tielemans making 15 appearances and scoring 5 goals. At the end of the 2016-17 campaign Tielemans won the Belgian Professional Football Player of the Year award and was named to the Europa League Squad of the Season. He had just turned 20.
Although Tielemans’ career had just reached dizzying heights, everything was about to crash to a bitter low. In a move that was supposed to portend Tielemans’ ascension to the ranks of Europe’s most elite players, he left Anderlecht at the end of the 2016-17 season for the brighter lights and bigger stage of Monaco, which had just won the Ligue 1 crown. It was a decision that would prove disastrous.
Once at Monaco, Tielemans found himself unable to elbow his way past manager Leonardo Jardim’s preferred midfield pairing of Fabinho and João Moutinho. And although Monaco were the defending Ligue 1 champs, Bernardo Silva, Kylian Mbappe, Benjamin Mendy, and Tiemoue Bakayoko were all jumping ship for other clubs just as Tielemans was arriving. The sales of these stars left Monaco with a hoard of cash but a weakened squad. The Red & Whites failed to retain the league title, and France Football named Tielemans to its list of the season’s biggest flops.
Monaco’s talent exodus continued again the following summer, when Fabinho, Moutinho, and Thomas Lemar all departed for greener pastures. The absence of Fabinho and Moutinho opened a path for Tielemans into Monaco’s starting lineup, but the squad around him was a ghost of the title-winning side from 2016-17. With Radamel Falcao and Kamil Glik the only other substantially-experienced players left in the team, Monaco’s struggles only worsened as this season’s campaign unfolded. By October 2018, the club had sunk to 18th place, and Jardim was sacked.
The club replaced him with Thierry Henry in a move that reunited the legendary Frenchman with the club for which he played as a youth. Henry wanted Tielemans to be the string-pulling centerpiece of a more possession-oriented, attacking brand of football. Consistent with his vision of Tielemans as the team talisman, he also named the Belgian as captain. This served to alienate both Tielemans and the manager from many of the senior squad, who both remained sympathetic to Jardim (who still lived locally) and resented the placement of the armband on a player so young.
Not surprisingly, Tielemans was happy in his role under Henry, but ultimately there wasn’t enough talent left in the side to play the style of football that Henry wanted. When that combined with the discord festering in the locker room, the results were miserable. After posting a record of 4 wins, 5 draws, and 11 losses, and with the club in 19th place staring at the very real possibility of relegation, Henry was dismissed on January 24th.
His replacement? None other than Leonardo Jardim, the very manager Monaco had fired just three months prior. With his team and career in tatters, and seeing the return of a gaffer who never really had faith in him, Tielemans was ready to answer the door when the Foxes came knocking.
Only Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Chelsea allow fewer goals than Leicester. But although one of the league’s most dangerous strikers wears their No. 9 shirt, Leicester’s offense ranks in the bottom half of the league. Claude Puel is therefore hoping that Tielemans can bring a dynamism to the midfield that the Foxes currently lack. Says Puel, “(Tielemans) is different to Adrien but can play box to box as well and give better balance in the team to attack. He has a good shot also, and he is a clinical player; he can score and assist.” Can we expect Tielemans to fulfill his new manager’s description?
Probably. Leicester’s current midfield duo is Wilfred Ndidi and Nampalys Mendy. Ndidi has scored 2 goals so far this season, Mendy none, and neither has managed even a single assist. Tielemans will not have a very high bar to clear, then, to improve upon the offensive production of these two. And his track record suggests he should do it rather comfortably.
The following table shows Tielemans’ goal-scoring statistics in Anderlecht’s domestic league for each of his four seasons there (it is his success at Anderlecht that Puel hopes the Belgian can replicate, rather than his stagnation at Monaco). As you can see, it illustrates the developmental evolution of a boy who began his professional career before he could drive, and who matured into the confident and seasoned player who, by the time he left Anderlecht, had been capped 10 times for Belgium and scored in the Champions League.
Tielemans at Anderlecht
Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were perhaps the best box-to-box midfielders of the Premier League era, while Paul Pogba is probably the most notable current example. Here’s how the career EPL numbers of these men compare. (Note: I only have data going back to 2004-05 for Lampard and Gerrard.)
The Gold Standard Box-to-Box Middies
Admittedly, using the stats of these three mega-stars as yardsticks for judging Tielemans is perhaps a little unfair. Gerrard and Lampard ended their careers as bona-fide world-class EPL legends. And in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s set up at Manchester United, Pogba looks very capable of reaching the same lofty heights. It’s also important to note that goal totals for Lampard, Gerrard, and Pogba are boosted by these players being their teams’ primary penalty takers.
Tielemans is still far from world-class, and although he has a lifetime record of 17/20 from the spot, he has not consistently been the #1 PK taker on the teams for which he’s played. Nevertheless, his average minutes/goal while at Anderlecht was 525, and during his best season there it was 301. It was 427 this season at Monaco despite the team’s relegation-bound form. So even compared to the stats of the three best-in-class box-to-box middies, Tielemans’ numbers suggest that he has the tools to deliver the goals that Puel is hoping for. Indeed, the Belgian was the highest-scoring central midfielder in Ligue 1 this season.
But he’ll offer much more than goals. He started his career as a defensive midfielder (which explains his minutes/goal stat from 2013-14), so his defensive skills and instincts are on point. Yet he can also make driving runs forward, and his passing and distribution are excellent: He notched 12 assists in 37 league games in his final season at Anderlecht, and he created 19 chances in 20 league games at Monaco this year. Here’s a video montage of the skill set he’ll bring to the King Power Stadium.
Tieleman’s Deadline Day transfer meant that he did not have enough time to prepare for yesterday’s game against Manchester United. But once he’s ready, I expect him to slot directly into Leicester’s midfield, likely at the expense of Nampalys Mendy. Tieleman’s ability to slice through opposing defenses with long, killer through balls will play right to Jamie Vardy’s strengths — the speedy striker likes to play off the shoulder of his marker, rather than with his back to goal. This should result in more chances and goals for Vardy, which should in turn increase Vardy’s fantasy value across all platforms.
But Tieleman’s addition to Leicester’s engine room will affect players besides Vardy, too. The Belgian’s vision and awareness will enable combination play with the attack-oriented James Maddison. If the two can find chemistry together, Puel will succeed in amping up the dynamism and synergy in a midfield that has lacked creative spark. But whether Tielemans will improve Maddison’s fantasy returns or cannibalize them remains to be seen.
As far as his own fantasy prospects are concerned, I think Tielemans will fare better in Fantrax than in FPL. As a function of his skill set and position, I would expect him to pad his Fantrax returns with phantom points for stats such as tackles won, passes intercepted, shots on target, and fouls suffered. FPL awards no credit for metrics such as these, though it could award some bonus points. Incidentally, for as much tackling as his position demands, Tielemans does not have discipline issues. He has never been shown a red card, and he has a lifetime average of just 1 yellow card every 9 games.
The usual caveats apply, of course, primarily the fact that continental players often struggle to make the adjustment to the speed and physicality of the English game. This would normally be an especially worrisome concern given that Tielemans is not yet 22 years old.
But a greenhorn he is not. This is a man who has taken the pitch as a professional footballer nearly 300 times, who has won domestic championships, and who has played in the Europa League, the Champions League, and even the World Cup. It’s no wonder Tielemans has been variously linked to clubs such as Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Juventus, and Tottenham. As former Anderlecht midfielder Pär Zetterberg says, “He is a phenomenon. There are not many players better than him.”
Will Tielemans go onto your watchlist in either FPL or Fantrax? Have you seen him play, and do you have any insight? Please share in the comments below!