Josh Cullen at RSC Anderlecht 2021/22: the Belgian giants’ underrated star – scout report
Josh Cullen’s time at West Ham United was a long, but not so memorable one. The Republic of Ireland international joined the Hammers youth setup in 2010, working his way up through the academy system before making his senior debut for West Ham in 2015. However, what possibly looked like a promising career at times in East London never panned out. He only made three senior Premier League appearances for West Ham but had plenty of first-team football through loan spells at Bradford (twice), Bolton, and Charlton Athletic (twice).
Then in the summer of 2020, RSC Anderlecht came calling, with West Ham selling Cullen to the Belgian giants for a fee of just over half a million euros. His time in Belgium under former Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany has been spectacular, with Cullen being arguably the most reliable RSC Anderlecht player in his two-plus seasons in Brussels.
Overview and role in Anderlecht’s side
As Josh Cullen’s heat map from this season is able to illustrate, he has played a vital role in Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht side. Cullen has played essentially every single minute for Anderlecht in the Belgian Pro League this season, barring only a few when he was subbed off during a 7-0 drubbing of Beerschot.
Cullen plays in a deep-lying distributor role for Anderlecht, with him not being involved virtually at all in the attacking third of the pitch. His role is similar to the one that Jorginho has played at both Napoli and Chelsea. Cullen is the link player between the defence and the attack, with his well above-average passing statistics, as well as his strong defending capabilities, making him a player that Kompany has been able to rely on to rarely make any mistakes.
Without a doubt, the passing range of Josh Cullen is his prized asset. Cullen finished with the second-highest number of passes completed in the Belgian Pro League this season, as well as the second-highest number of forward passes.
All in all, his underlying passing statistics this season have been phenomenal. In the 2021/22 campaign, Cullen averaged 63.97 passes per 90 minutes with a success rate of 89.7%. As mentioned previously, Cullen is not what some would call a backwards or sideways passing merchant either. He averaged 10.12 passes to the final third per 90 this season as well, with an accuracy of 77.5%. Finally, Cullen averaged 18.92 forward passes per 90, with 77.9% of those being accurate.
The image above shows an example of the passing range that Cullen possesses. In this phase of play against Union Saint-Gilloise, Cullen is in possession at the midfield line. No USG player is looking to close him down, which allows him the time and space to pick his passing option. The Anderlecht forward makes a perfectly timed run behind the USG defence, which Cullen is able to spot. This time and space on the ball allow Cullen to play a perfectly weighted ball over both the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines, dropping it into the space behind for the forward to run onto.
Unfortunately, the forward’s ensuing shot racketed off the post and USG are able to clear the danger. However, this example demonstrates Cullen’s ability to play passes over the top of opposition sides, bypassing the opposition’s defensive shape as a result, making him a key asset with being able to help Anderlecht break down opponents playing in low defensive blocks.
The phase of play above once again shows the capability of Cullen to bypass the opposition’s defensive shape by playing passes over the top. Anderlecht are starting theirbuild-up play, with Seraing getting ready to drop into their defensive low block. Cullen spots the run of the forward and he is able to play a ball over the top of the Seraing defence, bypassing the entire team as a result. Unfortunately, the chance goes begging once Anderlecht reach the penalty box, but it still shows the ability for Josh Cullen to play route one football with his range of passing.
Cullen also has the ability to play these types of passes when being pressured. In the phase of play above against Zulte Waregem, Cullen is being pressed by the opposition forward as he is looking for a forward passing option. The Anderlecht forward is able to make a run in behind the opposition defence, and even under pressure, Cullen plays a perfectly-weighted ball over the top of the Zulte Waregem defence, with the Anderlecht forward’s ensuing shot hitting off the post.
It is not just with long passes over the top that Cullen is able to demonstrate the full extent of his passing arsenal. In the image above from Anderlecht’s match against Genk, Cullen proves abilities to play perfectly weighted through balls while under pressure from multiple opposition players. Even though he is quickly being closed down, Cullen still has the vision to be able to spot the forward run, as well as play a pass that splits the two Genk centre-backs, putting the forward in 1v1 against the goalkeeper. Unfortunately, the goalkeeper makes a very good save, denying a sure goal for Anderlecht.
The final example for this section demonstrates the first touch passing ability that Cullen has. The Anderlecht midfielder has found himself on the far touchline in the attacking third. The ball is played to him and he is able to play a first-time through ball perfectly into the path of his teammate making a run in behind the Seraing defence. Unfortunately, another good chance created by Cullen goes begging, but his passing range was put on display once more.
Josh Cullen’s range of passing is without a doubt his biggest strength, and this is the main reason why he was such a key player in the Anderlecht side under Vincent Kompany.
Josh Cullen is not much of a threat when it comes to attacking phases of play for Anderlecht. This is illustrated by his minuscule number of goal involvements this season when he has played almost every single minute. From 40 appearances in the Belgian Pro League this season, Cullen has only managed one goal.
Defensively however, Josh Cullen is strong. Other than being the link man between the defence and the attack, he is also in charge of being a shield for the back four. This season, Cullen has averaged 6.55 defensive duels per 90, with a success rate of 64.5%. He also has only managed to accumulate four yellow cards this season, showing he does not have rash decision-making either when it comes to making tackles on opposition players. This section will take a more in-depth look at Josh Cullen’s ability in defensive duels.
The image above shows an example of the ability of Cullen when it comes to defensive duels and making perfectly-timed challenges so as to not commit fouls. Anderlecht have just turned the ball over in midfield, with it falling to an Antwerp player. The ball is played into the Anderlecht defensive third, but Cullen is quick to react and makes a perfectly timed sliding challenge, knocking the ball away from the Antwerp player and subsequently regaining possession for Anderlecht.
In the phase of play above, Antwerp are in possession in their own defensive third. The Anderlecht fullback has stepped out of position to try and win possession back but fails to do so. Noticing this, Cullen is able to quickly close down the player in possession before he regains his composure and is able to step in and win the ball. This allows Anderlecht to begin a counter attack in an advanced position of the pitch.
Anderlecht’s ability to regain possession in an advanced area of the pitch was credited to the quick and accurate decision making of Josh Cullen, as well as his ability when it comes to winning back possession in defensive duels.
The above example shows the intelligent quick decision making from Cullen when it comes to stepping into challenges or not. The phase of play above against USG shows a 1v1 loose ball duel between Cullen and one of the USG midfielders. The USG player gets to the loose ball first, but Cullen still commits to the challenge and is able to win the ball and not foul the man. This results in a turnover in possession, with Anderlecht regaining the ball near midfield.
The final example for this section shows the strength that Josh Cullen has when it comes to putting pressure on opposition players when they are in possession. Even though the Club Brugge player in possession is much taller and more physical than Cullen, he is still able to use his strength to force the player backwards, which gives Anderlecht the time to regroup defensively.
Though Josh Cullen is not the most attack-minded midfield player, the defensive side of his game is crucial to protecting the back four of Anderlecht. Whether it is dictating play with his passing ability, or protecting the back four with his defensive capabilities and willingness to challenge for the ball, Josh Cullen is crucial to what Anderlecht do as a side under Vincent Kompany.
Though it did not work out for Josh Cullen when he was part of the West Ham United setup, he has excelled during his time in Brussels with Anderlecht. He has developed and refined aspects of his game, with his range of passing and defensive capabilities being two of his key strengths. This analysis and tactics piece has looked at these two strengths in more detail, and at still only 26, a move back to the Premier League is still a possibility. Cullen has been recently linked with a transfer to newly-promoted Fulham, but it remains to be seen whether or not he might make the move this summer.
With Kompany’s departure on Wednesday afternoon, it would not be a surprise to see the Republic of Ireland international also leave Belgium for a return to England.