Few football seasons have ended as dramatically as the 2022-23 Belgian Pro League. Three teams temporarily held first place in the table across the final 10 minutes of action in the campaign, but in the end, it was a 94th-minute rocket from Toby Alderweireld that earned Royal Antwerp their first title in 66 years to leave Genk and Union Saint-Gilloise behind them.
Unbelievably, that was only last month. Now we’re ready to start all over again, with the Belgian top flight 2023-24 season kicking off this weekend. Reigning league champions Antwerp have already picked up their first silverware of the season, with a Belgian Super Cup victory over Mechelen on 23 June following a penalty shootout win.
We look ahead to the new league season by previewing some new faces, intriguing managerial appointments and the Opta season prediction for the 2023-24 Belgian Pro League title.
The Pro League Newcomers
The 2023-24 season brings a new format to the Belgian Pro League, with the number of clubs taking part in the competition dropping from 18 to 16. One of those 16 will be RWD Molenbeek, who’ll be playing in the Belgium top flight for the first time in their current guise. Following a fierce battle in the promotion play-offs, Vincent Euvrard’s RWDM side eventually got the better of SK Beveren to seal a place among the best in Belgium.
RWDM will be hoping to continue the form that got them to the top flight, as they finished the season with just one defeat in 16 Challenger Pro League matches (W13 D2). But as transpired earlier this week, that will not be with the aforementioned Euvrard. RWDM replaced their technical staff just days ahead of the season opener, with Claudio Cacapa coming in as the new head coach. Just as Euvrard did, Cacapa will hope to use 25-year-old forward Mickaël Biron as the figurehead.
The Martinique international scored 16 goals in the second tier last season, behind only Beveren’s Thierno Barry (25), and was a constant threat in the opposition box. Fifteen of his goals came from inside the area, while no player to play over 600 minutes of action in the competition had a higher proportion of their touches in the opposition box than him (18%).
RWDM were a high intensity team all over the pitch in 2022-23 and it’ll be interesting to see if Cacapa will change tact this season.
Across all of the second-tier sides in Belgium last season, they started their open play sequences the highest up the pitch – 45 metres from their own goal, on average – while they favoured high turnovers and direct attacks (the highest total for both categories in the league) over a pass-heavy game with a lot of build-up play.
New Faces in the Dugout
Newcomer Mark van Bommel certainly enjoyed his first season in Belgium as a manager, winning the league and cup double with Antwerp. The Dutchman will now head into his second campaign, but some of the other big clubs in Belgium have made a change in the dugout ahead of 2023-24. Some of those appointments deserve a deeper look.
Ronny Deila (Club Brugge)
At the end of May, Club Brugge announced the appointment of Ronny Deila as their new manager ahead of 2023-24. This caused some fuss, mainly as his old club – another of Belgium’s bigger sides, Standard Liège, fired him with immediate effect just two games before the end of last season.
Deila will be the fifth coach to take charge of the club since 2020, following Alfred Schreuder, Carl Hoefkens, Scott Parker and Rik De Mil. After a disappointing campaign last season, it’ll be a tough task to push Club Brugge back into contention for the title.
Standard had a stable, if unspectacular, season under the Norwegian coach, finishing in seventh position and scoring 58 goals – their highest goals-per-game ratio (1.7) since the 2013-14 campaign.
One of their brightest sparks was talented youngster Noah Ohio. The 20-year-old scored five goals and assisted four more – only two players (Gift Orban – 17, and Dorgeles Nene – 16) were involved in more goals across the Belgian top flight last season while aged under 21 years old than Ohio (nine). With Deila’s new employers Club Brugge boasting a great youth academy, it’s a good sign that he isn’t fearful of entrusting youngsters in his side.
On a less positive note, Deila’s Standard Liège side displayed ill-discipline across his tenure. In 38 matches last season, they were given a league-high 11 red cards and the second-highest tally of yellows (75). That tally of dismissals was the highest in the competition in a single season by a club since Royal Excel Mouscron’s 11 in 2018-19 and not since 2014-15 (Zulte Waregem – 12) has it been surpassed.
Club Brugge’s club motto is ‘no sweat, no glory’, but Deila will need to find a more peaceful solution heading into the upcoming season.
Carl Hoefkens (Standard Liège)
After multiple roles within Club Brugge, Carl Hoefkens has made the switch to Standard Liège for the upcoming season. He was Alfred Schreuder’s assistant when Club Brugge won the Pro League in 2021-22 and was eventually promoted to the managerial role when the Dutchman left for Ajax.
While he started relatively well in the hotseat, winning seven of his first 10 league games in charge and collecting three wins and three clean sheets from his first three matches in the UEFA Champions League, the wheels began to fall off. He subsequently went on to secure just three wins in an eight-game spell in the league and a 4-1 home defeat in the Belgian Cup to STVV was the final straw – he was fired after that loss.
Things didn’t improve for Club Brugge, however. Following his sacking, Scott Parker and Rik De Mil only managed to collect a combined total of 31 points from 22 league games – three points fewer than Hoefkens won (34) in four games fewer (18).
Many felt that Hoefkens’ departure from Club Brugge was a decision made too hastily, but now he has the perfect chance to show what he can do at Standard.
Alexander Blessin (Union Saint-Gilloise)
Union Saint-Gilloise are the only team to have finished in the top three places in both Belgian Pro League seasons since they won promotion to the top flight in 2021. What makes that more impressive is they have done so under two different managers: Felice Mazzu in 2021-22 and Karel Geraerts in 2022-23.
To keep that trend going, they have a different manager for a third season in a row – Alexander Blessin takes the hotseat as we head into 2023-24.
It will be curious to see how the new man will fare at Union. Geraerts was Mazzu’s assistant in 2021-22, so some form of continuity seemed inevitable, but German coach Blessin is completely new to the club.
He most recently worked in Belgium for KV Oostende, leading the club to their highest-ever points tally in competition history in his first campaign in charge (53 points) – winning the 2021 Manager of the Year award in the process.
Blessin’s results after that award took a turn for the worse, with his Oostende side losing eight of their final 10 Pro League games, and his spell in Italy being cut short after less than a year and a historic relegation with Genoa.
New Arrivals: Ones to Watch
With the new season around the corner, most Belgian clubs have had to be very active in the summer transfer market, either to strengthen their squad or to replace players that have made the move to other leagues.
Here, we’ve selected a few new arrivals to the Belgian Pro League who could make a mark in the 2023-24 season.
Hugo Vetlesen (Club Brugge)
Norwegian side Bodø/Glimt have become a force to be reckoned with across European competition in recent years, made clear by results such as the 6-1 thrashing of Roma and wins over both Celtic and AZ. They have produced some talented players that have gone on to other European leagues in recent years like Ola Solbakken (Roma), Erik Botheim (Salernitana) and Philip Zinckernagel (Standard). The next in line could be midfielder Hugo Vetlesen, who left for Club Brugge this summer.
The 23-year-old Belgian-born Norwegian made his debut in the Eliteserien aged 17 years and 32 days in 2017. For his age, he’s one of the most experienced players in the Scandinavian competition – playing more league games than any other oufielder in the competition since making his debut (168). And quite successfully, too. Vetlesen was directly involved in 56 goals (30 goals, 26 assists), with exactly half of those coming since the start of the 2022 campaign (19 goals, nine assists). In fact, since then and up to his departure, Vetlesen recorded the more attacking sequence involvements than any other player (249).
George Ilenikhena (Royal Antwerp)
If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. That quote is certainly relevant in George Ilenikhena’s career so far. The 16-year-old striker has landed at title-holders Royal Antwerp after making his mark at French Ligue 2 side Amiens, arriving for a reported €6million.
Ilenikhena made history in January when he scored his first Ligue 2 goal aged just 16 years and 150 days old, becoming the youngest player to do so this century. The French-Nigerian striker was also the youngest player within the top two tiers of England, Italy, Spain, Germany or France to score more than once in 2022-23.
Of course, it’s unlikely that he’ll walk straight into the Antwerp side, especially with Vincent Janssen still about. The former Tottenham striker scored 18 goals in his debut season in Belgium, becoming the highest scoring Dutchman in the competition this century.
Christopher Baah (KRC Genk)
After only 12 top flight appearances, Genk had seen enough. Aged just 18, Christopher Baah made the move from Norwegian side Sarpsborg 08 to the Belgian Pro League this summer.
Before his departure from Norway, Baah led the league for successful dribbles past an opponent per 90 minutes (5.2), while he also topped the charts for shot involvements following take-ons (3.8 per 90).
Genk star Mike Trésor has not left the club yet, but they may have found an ideal replacement in Baah, with Trésor the player with the most created chances (109) and attempted dribbles (183) in the Belgian league in 2022-23. Becoming a direct replacement will be difficult for Baah, but for now, he could look to Trésor as a mentor before eventually taking over the role of chief creator.
Maxime Dupé (RSC Anderlecht)
Anderlecht will need to recover from another incredibly disappointing Belgian Pro League campaign, in which their only true standout player across 2022-23 was goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen.
The Dutchman played so well in his 20-odd games in all competitions for the club that he earned a move to Premier League side Brighton and Hove Albion. The Brussels club had one clear goal this summer: sign a suitable replacement. That replacement was eventually found at Ligue 1 side Toulouse with Maxime Dupé.
The surprising winners of the Coupe de France last season, Toulouse had a reliable figure in goal with Dupé. The 30-year-old didn’t miss a single league game in Ligue 1 in 2022-23, playing every single minute of their 38 matches (3,420) – something he also managed in the club’s successful 2021-22 Ligue 2 season.
Dupé’s first season in the French top-flight since 2018-19 turned out to be a busy one. He prevented more than three goals based on Opta’s expected goals on target model (54 goals conceded from 57.1 xGOT) and saw just two goalkeepers in the competition make more saves (126). With three saved penalties from seven attempts faced, Dupé was also among Europe’s best penalty stoppers last season. Of those that faced at least five penalties, only Getafe’s David Soria (50% – four from eight) saved a higher proportion.
2023-24 Belgian Pro League Prediction
The Opta supercomputer has spoken. With the new Belgian Pro League kicking off on 28 July, a two-way battle for the 2023-24 title looks set to unfold between defending champions Royal Antwerp and Union Saint-Gilloise, who finished third in 2022-23.
Based on the Opta supercomputer projections, there are nine contenders for the title, with Union Saint-Gilloise only just the favourites (32.4%) over Antwerp (31.2%).
Behind them, three teams will be looking to make their mark: KRC Genk (14.3%), KAA Gent (13.2%) and Club Brugge (6.9%). Having just endured a difficult season in fourth place – their worst finish since 2010-11 – the Bruges side are no longer dominating the Belgian Pro League as they used to, but with a new season and a new manager, anything is possible.
Anderlecht are in the running, but only have a 1.3% chance of success according to the Opta supercomputer, which is just ahead of Cercle Brugge (0.6%) and rank outsiders Sporting Charleroi (0.1%) and Sint-Truiden (0.1%).