FEATURE | Make or Break for Mbaye Leye and Zulte Waregem

Mbaye Leye hasn’t had an easy introduction to management. Despite making the 2021 cup final with Standard Liege in his first season, their financial constraints and off-field issues meant that his second season was doomed from the outset. His sacking from the Liege giants did little to alter their fortunes, as the side continued to struggle under Luka Elsner.

Months later, and Leye was unveiled as the new Zulte Waregem manager. The fit seemed good, a young hungry manager at a side he had played for at three different times during his career. Leye made 202 appearances for Zulte Waregem, scoring 87 goals and grabbing 28 assists, as well as starting in their most recent trophy victory, the 2017 cup final win over KV Oostende.

However, the glory days of 2017 seem a world away now. Last seasons 16th place finish also saw the departure midway through the season of Francky Dury, the man who had led Zulte Waregem for over a decade. Leye inherited a side that was going in the wrong direction that had only known one voice for a long time.

Adding to the pressure has been the league restructuring in Belgium. After a couple of seasons of speculation, it was confirmed that the first division would reduce in number, meaning three teams were to be relegated, rather than the usual one automatically, with a play-off between the second bottom in the Pro League and the second placed team in the second tier. If this had been the case in 2021/2022, Zulte Waregem would have been relegated.

This summer’s transfer window took on extra importance, with a leaky defence the main area that needed attention. Borja Lopez (Sporting Gijon), Modou Tambedou (Free), Oleksandr Drambayev (Shakhtar Donetsk) and Ravy Tsouka (Helsingborg) were brought in. Young prospect Ewoud Pletinckx was allowed to depart for OH Leuven, while Laurens De Bock and Cameron Humphreys also left the club. Yet despite the defensive overhaul, the result has barely changed. Leye changed from the Drury back three to a back four, but the side have still conceded the most goals, averaging two conceded per game.

At the other end, what was once a potent attack has also disappeared. Last season the side managed to score 42 goals in 34 games, the same amount as Sint-Truiden in 9th and more than the sides around them. Jelle Vossen and Zinho Gano combined for 30 of these, while Jean-Luc Dompe provided 14 assists. This season, Gano has not featured at all, and after a falling out with Mbaye Leye, the manager stated that he will not pick the striker. Dompe was also sold to Hamburg in the summer, leaving just Vossen out of the trio that in essence helped keep the side in the league.

This season, the absence of Gano and Dompe is starting to show. Zulte Waregem have managed just eight goals in ten matches, with young Gambian winger Alieu Fadera top scoring with two. Vossen has only managed one, while it is Fadera again who is the chief provider with three assists. Attempts have been made to make up for the loss of two key players. Alioune Ndour was the largest transfer of the summer, joining from Norwegian side Haugesund. Dani Ramirez joined for free from Lech Poznan, and Chinonso Offor was loaned in from CF Montreal. None have found the net yet. One eye catching signing was that of Stan Braem, who joined from lower league side Zwevezele. The 23-year-old had never played higher than the third tier of Belgian football, but did manage to score his first goal of the season against Union St Gilloise back in September. Braem clearly needs more time to settle into the extra pace and physicality of the top league, but time is something Zulte Waregem simply do not have.

Currently, Zulte Waregem sit rock bottom, with just one win and two draws. Their only win was against relegation favourites RFC Seraing, who despite everyone’s predictions of finishing rock bottom have shown that they will not go down easily. One of their draws was an equally impressive display against the reigning champions Club Brugge. However, these now feel like a lifetime ago.

The gap to safety for Leye’s side is currently at four points, and with four defeats in their last five matches, it is growing. Cercle Brugge, who sit just above Zulte Waregem, have already pulled the plug on their manager Dominik Thalhammer, in a bid to avoid being sucked into the relegation battle. Their victory over Gent, along with victories for Seraing, Eupen and Kortrijk has heaped the pressure on Leye.

This weekends fixture against OH Leuven could force the club’s hierarchy into making a similar decision to those at Cercle. If they lose and Leye goes, the club could be looking at a fourth manager in the space of a year, which would be more managers in 12 months than in anytime over the past decade.

Ben JacksonGBeNeFN

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