Already one of the top talents worldwide in attacking midfield, Charles De Ketelaere now also plays in a top league. Italian champions AC Milan have signed the 21-year-old Belgian international from Club Brugge.
Reigning champions AC Milan have strengthened their squad with a Belgian gem shortly before the start of the Italian Serie A season: Charles De Ketelaere is leaving his youth team Club Brugge and is now playing for “I Rossoneri”.
The eight-time Belgium international is considered one of the greatest talents in the world in the attacking midfield position. The 21-year-old has been given a contract in Milan until 2027 and according to media reports, the Milan transfer is worth 32 million euros — a record fee for the Belgian champions from Bruges.
The big questions among Milan fans so far have regarded his role and whether he is worth such an investment, given the reported fee of €32m plus bonuses. In this scout report and tactical analysis, we will analyse his playing style, strengths and weaknesses.
De Ketelaere made his debut for Club Brugge on September 25 2019, against Francs Borains, playing the full 90 minutes. His second appearance came against PSG in a 5-0 loss in the Champions League. He had a breakout season during the 2020/21 campaign, scoring five goals and managing eight assists in 46 games (3129 minutes) at the age of just 20.
A student at Law University, De Ketelaere also trained to be a professional tennis player but couldn’t handle his mistakes or deal with losing on an individual basis. His answer to this problem was playing football. Ever since the age of eight, he had been at Club Brugge’s youth academy. As a born and bred Brugge product, he was affectionately dubbed King Charles by their fans.
To cap it all off, De Ketelaere was named the Belgian promising talent of the year in 2020 — a prestigious award won by athletes such as Romelu Lukaku, Kim Clijsters and Yari Verschaeren, among others.
It is a testament to De Ketelaere’s versatility that he has been identified by various clubs across the continent to fulfil different roles within their squads.
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 centre-forward; he has even played as a number 8 and at left wing-back.
De Ketelaere’s heat map from the 2021/22 campaign shows a player who likes to spend time all over the pitch – but prefers to spend the majority of his time in the final third, on both flanks of the pitch.
Milan see him as a player that can kill several birds with one stone. They would like to upgrade at right-wing and Number ‘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 Brugge. Playing as number ‘10’ or number ‘8’ in Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 might be the best positions for De Ketelaere.
Still young, De Ketelaere is likely to find a more specialized niche for himself in the years to come. It is likely that the young forward carves a niche for himself as a second striker, someone that can play in behind the number nine: creating as well as finishing his fair share of chances.
To understand what De Ketelaere can bring to Stefano Pioli’s system, it is important to understand what his traits are both on and off the ball.
Dribbling: A very important function for any modern forward and something coaches look for in their players is to be good at taking defenders on and/or to be good in 1v1 situations. CDK is good at taking on his marker and beating them, making him good in tight spaces. De Ketelaere does not dribble with his head down, but instead places his body against the defender, shields the ball, and swiftly changes direction to leave the opponent in his dust.
Finding spaces: A large part of tactics in football is about creating space and restricting space for your opponents. In a game which is so dynamic, the job of an attacker is to find space, whether it is in the middle of the pitch or in wide areas.
One of the reasons why De Ketelaere has proven to be such a versatile threat is his movement both on and off the ball. He has a solid understanding of space and often makes the right run off the ball in order to receive in advantageous situations and create space for his teammates, as seen in the example below.
De Ketelaere’s tactical intelligence makes him an expert at finding these spaces especially those between defensive lines of the opposition. The 21-year-old also has a knack for running into space to help link up play with Milan’s wingers or midfielders to create passing combinations.
De Ketelaere tends to infiltrate between the lines, make deep, incisive runs, and combine with his other attacking teammates in order to create chances.
Like old-school strikers, De Ketelaere often likes to play on the shoulder of the last man and make runs in behind the last defender. De Ketelaere also makes intelligent runs into the box to receive passes and then take a shot or cross.
Ball control: With the pace of the game growing at a frightening rate, it is important for players — even goalkeepers — to have a good first touch and bring the ball under control before it is snatched away.
De Ketelaere has an assured first touch and is not easily pushed off the ball. He also has a very good technique to bring down long balls being played into him. He predominantly uses his left foot to dribble but can also use his right foot to take a touch or to throw defenders off.
Passing: De Ketelaere’s main strength is his passing ability. His progressive passing compared to the rest of Europe puts him in the 83rd percentile, which is impressive. It shows the number of passes he makes forward and into the penalty box, and he also can switch play brilliantly, with long-range passes in his locker as well.
He is already showing an impressive level of accuracy for his age, and if he can refine his passing precision in goalscoring areas, he will stake an even greater claim to being a regular starter for the Belgian national team.
When compared to positional peers in the top five European leagues over the past year, De Ketelaere ranks in the 91st percentile for key passes with 1.69 per 90 minutes: while also ranking in the 88th, 95th and 90th percentiles for passes into the final third, passes into the penalty area and progressive passes respectively.
Hold-up play: While he can position himself between the lines, or run in behind a defence, at 192 cm, he has grown to become a player who can hold up the ball capably and bring teammates into the fold.
Having played as a centre-forward, De Ketelaere was expected to develop skills that suit a striker and that involves holding the ball up. Brugge play a lot using counter-attacks and this required CDK to essentially play as a quarterback in transition.
Not only does De Ketelaere have the ability to hold up possession against physically imposing centre-backs, but he is also adept at placing his body against opponents before sharply turning away and accelerating past him. His maturity belies his tender age — he recognizes situations quickly, and he has the game intelligence to make the right choices, both on the offensive and defensive level.
Shooting and crossing: Of course, being a forward player would mean that one needs to have good shooting technique as well. Therefore, he is not afraid of shooting from outside the box.
However, one area in which he does need to improve in is his shot selection. He will far too often take a high-risk shot from outside the box rather than driving into the area, creating space for himself, and attempting a low xG speculative shot. This is exemplified below by his shot map.
His finishing skills need improvement as well. Far too often, he makes the wrong decision in front of goal in terms of where to place his shot. While he does not take many shots, an improved shot selection and placement will make him a far more valuable asset when he does arrive in goal-scoring positions. At the moment, it’s a consistency in front of goal that he is lacking.
In addition, De Ketelaere always looks up while making a cross, hence waiting for a player to make a run into the box, as seen below.
Aerial ability: Standing tall at 192 cm, De Ketelaere is a tall player, and therefore, is naturally expected to be good at headers and be the target of long balls and crosses. While his numbers suggest he isn’t aerially as good as he is expected to be, he has shown considerable improvement, like how he headed down the ball for Hans Vanaken below.
Quick turns of pace: Unlike Rafael Leão, De Ketelaere will never be the quickest player on the pitch, but he has a very rare ability to accelerate very quickly and use quick feet which can help startle defenders. It also helps in the case of pressing and closing down opposition players.
Pressing and defensive work: Above all, De Ketelaere is an extremely hard worker. His work ethic is second to none, and as a result, deserves all the praises he will undoubtedly receive. You can put young CDK in any position on the pitch — he will give his all and likely thrive there.
He has a good understanding of pressing principles. He kicks his pressing up a notch when the ball is played into wide areas, or when the opponent takes a heavy touch. He is also aware of his positioning on the pitch, and when he can allow his teammates to press, and when he can step into passing lanes to intercept the ball too.
Club Brugge, unlike Milan, are not a team that prefers a high press, but rather settle into a mid-block and invite the opponent into their half before launching counters. For this reason, De Ketelaere is not engaged in heavy counter-pressing. However, he has been given the freedom to close down attackers or cut off passing lanes.
Being 192 cm, De Ketelaere has the novelty of using long legs and this gives a better reach and therefore can tackle better for the ball. His work rate has been lauded by his managers, and he often tracks back to help his defenders out.
The analysis started with the question “What is De Ketelaere’s best position?” The answer is probably that he has no best position, but is most likely to be used in the central areas. What Maldini, Massara and chief scout Geoffrey Moncada have done is crunched the numbers, scouted the player for two years and found a player with qualities that suit Pioli.
He is a highly versatile player that is yet to reach his peak and find his strengths, while Pioli now has the freedom to mould him into a player that is a perfect cog in his system. Besides his long list of impressive attributes, young De Ketelaere has also racked up priceless experience in the Champions League.
De Ketelaere leaves Belgium as a champion, with three Belgian league titles and two Super Cups on his CV. Alongside the senior players at Milan, he could blossom into something special to justify every penny that was spent on him.