After dominating the competition for half a decade, Real Madrid are the white whale for any aspiring team in the UEFA Champions League even if they are not the team they once were. The latest side to try their luck at the Bernabeu was Belgian giants Club Brugge, and they shocked the world when they took a 2-0 half time lead in the Spanish capital. While they were unable to see out the win, the game brought attention to their dynamic African trio leading the attack in the form of Percy Tau, Krepin Diatta and double goalscorer Emmanuel Bonaventure Dennis.
Despite not being a traditionally strong league, the Belgian Jupiler League has become one of the biggest producers of young talent in the last decade. While a lot of this is their own domestic talent, it also hosts a large amount of African youngsters who see it as the perfect platform to reach the next level in their careers. This is in part due to Belgium being a partly Francophone country as well as having large diasporas from African countries such as DR Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Morocco, which should make it a more comfortable environment to settle into for the players.
Among the Brugge stars, the name on everyone’s lips right now is Emmanuel Bonaventure Dennis. The 21 year old joined from Ukraine in 2017, and up to now has not been the most formidable goalscorer with 25 goals and nine assists in just 84 games in all competitions with Club Brugge since signing in Summer 2017. These numbers, however, are somewhat misleading, as Dennis spent the bulk of that time period playing as more of a support striker for the domineering Brazilian striker Wesley, who left for Aston Villa this summer.
Dennis’ new found freedom has seen a significant rise in his goal numbers, with 6 in 14 already including a brace at the Bernabeu, which will always be seen as a watershed moment in his career. The goal return against Real Madrid will come as a surprise to anyone who saw Brugge’s group stage opener against Galatasaray where Dennis missed a multitude of chances, largely due to his decision making in the final third which ultimately cost Brugge a crucial win.
As a player, Dennis is an extremely versatile forward who can play in any attacking role. His blistering pace and constant runs down the channels make him a capable winger, but he is at his best when he can spearhead the attack down the middle where he can latch onto loose balls and showcase his counter attacking prowess. The only thing he really lacks as a striker is a physical presence as he stands at just 5’9, which may lead to him being shifted out wide when he starts to face more physical and experienced centre backs as his career progresses.
On the opening Dennis goal against Real Madrid, the pass that found the Nigerian came from South Africa star Percy Tau. The 25 year old has been a household name for African club football fans in the last few years as he became one of the most feared attackers on the continent in his time at Mamelodi Sundowns. His form for club and country in South Africa led to a move to Brighton last year, however it was immediately followed by a loan move to their satellite club Union Saint Gilloise in the Belgian second tier due to him being unable to get a work permit in England. Despite the lowly status of the club, he made a name for himself by leading them to the Belgian Cup semi finals before losing to eventual champions Mechelen, and this form prompted another loan move to Brugge.
While he can play as an out and out striker if needed, Tau generally finds himself playing out wide and supplying a focal point in the middle. Tau is blessed with good technical ability and speed but it’s his ability to find space and dangerous positions before unleashing a killer final ball or shot that make him such a useful player. Since moving to Belgium, Tau has also added another element to his game which is receiving the ball on both sides of the pitch rather than primarily on the right as he did before. This gives him a lot more unpredictability, and this made him a nightmare even for experienced defenders like Ramos, Varane, Carvajal and Marcelo to deal with.
The third component of Brugge’s starting frontline in Madrid was Senegal international Krepin Diatta. Possibly the most versatile player in the entire Brugge squad, Diatta played primarily on the right wing against Real Madrid however he spent most of last season playing in a very unique role on the left side of a 3-5-2, however not as a conventional left wing back but as more of a deep lying left winger. Despite the area of the pitch, he was not tasked with too much in the way of defensive duties but played more as a wide playmaker who supported the attack constantly. At the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Diatta was a key component of the Senegal squad that reached the final by playing as both a left winger and, at times, a central midfielder, providing a creative spark that is somewhat lacking in the Teranga Lions’ more defensively orientated midfield.
Alongside Hans Vanaken, Diatta is the main creative force of the Brugge squad. While Vanaken does his work in the middle, Diatta offers an option out wide and has a knack for sending in accurate crosses from either wing and on either foot, and when he plays on the left he often cuts in and plays an incisive pass to the striker or wingers running in behind. Diatta is also the most technically gifted member of the attack and possibly the squad as a whole, and combined with his speed he effortlessly glides past defenders and midfielders alike. Due to his past in a more defensive role, he is also superb at winning the ball back across the pitch, making him just about as good defensively as you can hope for in a forward. He is more willing to do his defensive duties than Dennis and Tau, and combined with his ball carrying qualities this makes him crucial for Brugge in attacking transitions which will continue to be useful against quality opposition in the Champions League. If Diatta can develop more of a killer instinct in front of goal, as he showed in his time in Norway, he could become one of the most complete attacking players in the world as he already has most of the tools at his disposal while only being 20 years old.
The African talent in Brugge’s attack is not just restricted to these three, as there as is a like for like replacement waiting in line in the form of David Okereke. The Nigerian is another who can play in any attacking role, however he generally favours playing on the right more. Compared to the starting trio, Okereke is far more raw and still needs to polish his technical qualities before reaching the next level, but being such a powerful runner means that when his technical qualities do pay off he can be very difficult to deal with. His attacking versatility also adds to the fluidity of the current Brugge attack to make a seamless transition when he needs to fill in for the first choice players.
Also hailing from Senegal is Brugge’s “Plan B” off the bench – Mbaye Diagne. The Galatasaray loanee is much more of an imposing physical presence than the rest of their attack, and as such a clinical finisher he will surely prove to be useful for Brugge. In the years leading up to this move, Diagne became one of the most feared strikers in Turkey by scoring 42 goals in 46 league games for Kasimpasa and Galatasaray, winning the league with the latter. At 6’4, Diagne gives Brugge some much needed variety should their original plan not work.
This combination and variety of styles in the Brugge attack means that they can be fluid, dynamic and devastating on the counter attack, and in the highest level of club football this will be of paramount importance as they will always face teams who will be comfortable in possession. Many of the most successful attacks in the last few years of Champions League football, such as Liverpool, Real Madrid, Ajax, PSG and Tottenham, have had this same trait of being able to counter quickly and interchange positions well to provide unpredictability.
As a result, when you combine this Brugge frontline with the superb midfield and athletic defence behind them, it is possible that the Belgian side will continue to cause problems for whoever stands in their way, and with the forwards still all being so young they could do so for many years to come.