2021/22 Belgian Pro League Championship and European playoffs: How they work and one player to watch from each side
How do the Belgian Pro League regular season and playoffs work?
Unlike any of the major European leagues, the way a champion is crowned in Belgium works completely differently. The Belgian Pro League is broken down into two parts: the regular season and the championship round/European playoff round. During the 34 matchday regular season, each of the 18 teams play each other twice, once at home and once away. At the end of these 34 matchdays, the last-placed team in the Pro League is automatically relegated down to the 1B Pro League; with the team finishing 17th playing in a two-legged promotion/relegation playoff against the 2nd placed team from the 1B Pro League. The sides that finish in places 9-16 are done with their seasons after the regular season finishes unless one of those sides is participating in the Belgian Cup final.
Though the official champion is not crowned at the end of the regular season, there is still a “regular season” champion. The “regular season” champion is guaranteed a place in Europe for the following season, regardless of how the championship playoffs go for them. This means that Royale Union-Saint Gilloise are certain of obtaining at least a spot in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa Conference League for next season. Now, let’s discuss how the playoffs are formatted.
This image above shows how the top 4 in Belgium finished up at the end of the regular season. When the playoffs start all points are halved, rounded up to the nearest whole number. For example, USG finished the regular season with 77 points, if you divide that number by two you would get 38.5, which means they will instead start on 39 points in the playoffs. Following them will be Club Brugge on 36 points, and then both Anderlecht and Royal Antwerp will start the playoffs on 32 points. Each side plays each other twice, once at home and once away. Once those matches are all played, a champion is crowned.
There is also European qualification places to be decided for each side in the championship round as well. The champions of Belgium are automatically placed into the group stages of the UEFA Champions League, with the coefficient for the Belgian league high enough to where they get one automatic spot. Second place is also put into the Champions League, but they have to enter the competition in the third qualifying round. Third place gets entered into the final qualifying round of the UEFA Europa Conference League. The team that finishes fourth is the only side that isn’t guaranteed a spot in Europe for the following season. This is because they have to play a one-off match against whoever wins the European playoffs, which will be discussed next. The winner of this tie gets placed into the second round of qualifying of the Europa Conference League.
The Belgian Cup also plays a part in determining European qualification as well. With KAA Gent beating Anderlecht in the final that just occurred, this is what now happens. Since Gent were victorious, it means that they are guaranteed a spot in the UEFA Europa League group stage proper. This means that if they win the European playoff, there will be no more match to determine the last European spot. That place will go to whoever finishes fourth in the championship playoff round. If they weren’t to win it, that match would still occur.
But wait, there’s more. What about in the event of a tie at the end of the playoff round? In that scenario, the regular season will always be what is looked at first to determine final positions. If necessary, the half point that was awarded to round up to the nearest whole number when the playoffs started will also be subtracted.
Here is a look at what the European playoffs will look like. The format is the exact same as the championship playoffs. Gent will start the playoffs on 31 points, with Sporting Charleroi on 27 points, and then both KV Mechelen and KRC Genk will start on 26 points. As mentioned previously, only the side that finishes in 5th place in this playoff round will have a chance at securing European football; but with Gent winning the cup, that one-off tie will not happen unless Gent don’t finish in 5th.
One player to watch from each side
This piece will look more like a data analysis as opposed to a tactical analysis, looking at some of the underlying numbers for these different players, with this section taking a quick look at one player that you should watch from each of the eight sides competing in these Belgian Pro League playoff rounds.
Royale Union-Saint Gilloise: Deniz Undav & Dante Vanzeir
While the rules are technically one player to watch from each side, it’s hard to watch Royale Union-Saint Gilloise and not keep a close eye on the best forward partnership this season in Belgium, and even arguably in Europe, Deniz Undav and Dante Vanzeir. Out of USG’s 78 goals scored in the league this season, Undav and Vanzeir have been involved in 55 of them (Undav: 24 goals & 9 assists, Vanzeir: 14 goals & 8 assists). This means that the two forwards have been directly involved in about 71% of USG’s goals this season, which is an absolutely eye-popping number. This playoff run will also be the last time that football fans will be able to see this duo together up top. With Undav already confirmed to be joining Brighton & Hove Albion in the summer, and Vanzeir possibly poised to move on, next season’s Union Saint-Gilloise side has the potential to look extremely different.
What Union Saint-Gilloise have accomplished so far this season has been nothing short of extraordinary. Without a doubt, Felice Mazzu is the odds-on favorite to be manager of the season in Belgium; and it would not be a surprise if one of these two forwards were named player of the season if USG can continue this great run of form going into the playoffs and win the Belgian Pro League. No matter what happens in the playoffs for USG this season, these two forwards have become club legends for Les Unionistes, and fans of the Belgian Pro League, and football in general, should keep a close eye on these two in the playoffs.
Club Brugge: Charles de Ketelaere
When choosing a player to watch for Club Brugge, it is hard to look past the impact that Charles de Ketelaere has made for the Bruges side this season. During de Ketelaere’s first full senior season in the Club Brugge squad, he made 32 appearances in the Pro League, scoring 3 goals and getting 4 assists. This season however, he has been nothing short of spectacular. This term, he has made one more appearance in the league than he did last season, but he has 14 goals and 7 assists, shattering his tallies from last season. He has also had more of an evolved role in the second half of this season, with Ronald Koeman’s former assistant at Barcelona Alfred Schreuder replacing Phillipe Clement in the Club Brugge dugout after the latter left to join AS Monaco.
Under Schreuder and his tactics, de Ketelaere has been transformed into a deeper-lying playmaker as well as an out-and-out centre-forward. He will often look to drop deep to find pockets of space to receive the ball, as well as rotate positions with one of the central midfielders, usually Hans Vanaken. He has also drifted out wide at times to play in more of a wing-back role, with de Ketelaere a Swiss army knife for this Club Brugge side.
RSC Anderlecht: Josh Cullen
When Josh Cullen left West Ham United to join Anderlecht in the fall of 2020 for a fee of under £1 million, not many knew what to expect from the Republic of Ireland international. Cullen had only made three Premier League appearances for the Hammers, with the majority of his senior appearances being on loan in League One with both Charlton Athletic and Bradford City. However, since joining Anderlecht, he has arguably become Vincent Kompany’s most important player.
Cullen does not have a single goal or assist for Anderlecht this season in the Pro League, but the impact he makes as the conductor in their midfield is enormous. Cullen plays a role for Kompany very much similar to the one that Jorginho has at Chelsea. A midfielder who may not score or assist much from open play, but has spectacular ball distribution and is able to dictate play from a deeper-lying role. In the Pro League this season, Cullen has attempted a total of 2428 passes this season, with an incredible pass accuracy of 88%. He also averages 83 touches a game for Anderlecht, solidifying his status as a key player for them. He has also not missed a game for Anderlecht in the league this season, with him playing a full 90 minutes in 33 of the 34 league matches this season; only being substituted after 68 minutes in Anderlecht’s 7-0 drubbing of Beerschot earlier this season. Though Cullen may not be the flashiest player for Anderlecht in regards to goals and assists; he is definitely one to keep a close eye on during Anderlecht’s playoff run.
Royal Antwerp: Michael Frey
If Royal Antwerp are going to have any chance of winning the Pro League, they are going to need Michael Frey to be on his best goalscoring form. With 22 goals this season, the 27-year old Swiss forward is without a doubt the biggest goal-scoring threat for this side. Antwerp have had a very topsy turvy season this term, with the future of manager Brian Priske being in doubt at one point near the middle of the season, even though the side were sitting 2nd in the league.
When looking at the stats, Antwerp are the weakest attacking side going into this championship playoff round. With only 55 goals scored this term, they have 17 less than both Anderlecht and Club Brugge, who have scored 72 as a team this season. Frey has scored 40% of Antwerp’s goals this season, so him being in good form is crucial to the level of success that Royal Antwerp have in this 2021/22 championship playoffs.
KAA Gent: Tarik Tissoudali
With Gent having already been guaranteed a spot in Europe for next season after beating Anderlecht in the Belgian Cup final, and them starting with a four-point lead going into the European playoffs, Gent are in wonderful form currently under Hein Vanhaezebrouck. One of Gent’s key players this season, and their one to watch in the playoffs, is 29-year old Moroccan striker Tarik Tissoudali.
In Vanhaezebrouck’s prefered 3-4-1-2 system, Tissoudali is normally deployed as the left striker, with him often drifting out to the left flank and becoming almost a left-winger, operating in those half spaces to try and receive possession. Whereas his strike partner, Laurent Depoitre, is more of a back to goal striker, Tissoudali prefers to make runs in behind, staying on the shoulders of the last defenders and operating inside the 18-yard box constantly. Tissoudali this season has had 172 touches in the penalty area, behind only Charles de Ketelaere and Deniz Undav, illustrating his presence in these positions for Gent. In regards to his goalscoring capabilities, in 29 matches in the league for Gent this season, Tissoudali has scored 19 goals, while also chipping in with 5 assists. Tissoudali also likes to take players on with the ball at his feet, with him averaging 6.56 dribbles per 90 this season with a success rate of 55.3%. On Gent’s current league form, they should be the undisputed favourites to win the European playoffs, and having Tissoudali on top form would be a huge boost.
Sporting Charleroi: Joris Kayembe
The only defender on this list, Joris Kayembe has been a key player for Edward Still and Sporting Charleroi all season; and this should still be the case once Charleroi get going in the European playoffs. At Charleroi this season, Still has opted to use a heavily attacking three at the back system instead of a more defensive five. Operating at the LWB, Kayembe has not missed a match for Les Zèbres this season, starting in all 34.
Joris Kayembe is a constant threat down the left-hand side for Charleroi, with a majority of the attacking play going through him down that left flank, with Kayembe averaging 73 touches per game this season. Kayembe also makes 4.29 progressive runs per 90, while also attempting 145 crosses this season, the third-highest in the Pro League. Of course, because of Kayembe’s tendency to constantly get forward, he is prone to being exposed defensively. This season, Kayembe has allowed 289 progressive passes, the 5th highest in Belgium. However, Kayembe is not in the side for his defending capabilities, it is to create chances for the forward players for Charleroi. This isn’t to say though that Kayembe is not a good defender. He still averages 5.72 defensive duels per 90, being successful in 63% of them. Keep a close eye on Joris Kayembe once the European playoffs start.
KV Mechelen: Nikola Storm
Going into these European playoff rounds, KV Mechelen are by far the worst defensive side out of the top eight. Their 61 goals allowed this season put them 14 goals worse off defensively than Genk, who have conceded 47. With their defensive frailties, they may have to score loads to have any chance of winning the European playoffs. They have the attack to do it, with Nikola Storm having a breakout season this term for Mechelen.
Under Wouter Vrancken, Mechelen are normally deployed in a 4-2-3-1 system, with Storm playing as the left-sided attacking midfielder. During the match, Storm likes to drift out to the left-hand side, where he will often receive the ball and cut inside on his favoured right foot to shoot. Storm is clinical in front of goal as well, with 15 goals this season. Storm also likes to shoot from the edge of the box, with some of his goals being spectacularly scored from these types of positions. Storm is also not afraid to take players on with the ball at his feet. He is averaging 5.75 dribbles per 90 this season, with a success rate of 63%. Picking a player to watch from Mechelen was probably the hardest one, but Nikola Storm has shown often this season that he is capable of creating goals for himself and teammates from nothing, making him the player from Mechelen to keep a close eye on.
KRC Genk: Junya Ito
Genk have had an up and down season domestically. They started the season with John van den Brom at the helm, but he was sacked and replaced by Bernd Storck after a slow start to the season. Last season’s golden boot winner in Belgium Paul Onuachu also had a relatively slow start this season, but still managed to score 19 goals this season. Junya Ito, however, has been without a doubt, the most consistent and important player this season for Genk.
With 8 goals and 12 assists to his name this season, the Japanese international has been a pain for opposition defenders to keep quiet. Ito has the most crosses in the league this season with 206, with his 42 key passes ranking second in the league this season. He also is not afraid to take players on, with Ito averaging 6.78 dribbles per 90 with a 56.3% success rate. On the ball this season, Ito has been one of the best creative players in the Pro League, and there is no reason to assume that this will not continue into the playoffs. However, it is not just on the ball that Ito is dangerous, he also likes to make runs in behind the opposition defence to make himself more available in advanced positions, with his 123 progressive runs this season the joint third-most in the league. Though Genk are going to be starting the European playoffs as the bottom side, if Junya Ito is on top form they have a shot at finishing in 5th.
Along with a small dive into the statistics and data from some players to watch out for, this analysis piece was designed to get people who are not really in the loop with the Belgian Pro League playoff system some general knowledge about how it works. The Belgian League has one of the best talent pools in all of European football and is a very underrated European league that hopefully more people will soon get an interest in.