From scepticism to success: Cercle Brugge and Monaco have found the formula, but still want more

There was plenty of scepticism around Belgian and French football when it was announced that Monaco were to become the majority shareholder of Cercle Brugge.

In 2017, Cercle were playing in the second division of Belgian Football. Back then, the league was played in two phases, with the Green and Black half of Brugge finishing bottom of the opening phase. They rallied in the second phase to finish third, but in the end they were fighting for survival in the relegation play-offs. It was after avoiding relegation that Monaco announced the acquisition, with many doubting they would be able to return the club to the top flight as they claimed was the aim.

Cercle, founded in 1899, had just suffered a period of prolonged failure that had been caused by their poor financial situation. Monaco, in many ways, saved the club from disappearing, a fate many a Belgian side has suffered over the years. It was clear for those who joined at this time that investment was needed on and off the pitch. For example, there wasn’t even a water fountain for the players when the Principality took over. Now, that has certainly been rectified, while there is also a state of the art gym and two of best training pitches in the league.

Yet the immediate needs were to return the club to the top flight. This was achieved at the first attempt, Under Franky Vercauteren the side finished third in phase one before winning phase two and qualifying for the play-off against Beerschot Wilrijk. After a 1-0 defeat in Antwerp, the side won 3-1 back at the Jan Breydel thanks to a late Irvin Cardona penalty.

Despite the backing of Monaco, the club failed to really establish itself in the top flight for the first three seasons. They finished 15th, 14th and then 16th in their first three seasons as they continuously fought against relegation. Understandably, many remained sceptical of the link with the French side, questioning what benefit either were enjoying from the partnership given that on the pitch results were poor, while not many players were being developed.

The 2020/2021 season was the first under Carlos Avina, the former America sporting director having been asked by Monaco’s Paul Mitchell to take over and steer the Cercle Brugge project. With his feet now fully under the desk, Avina sprang into action during the summer of 2021. The Mexican had a clear footballing philosophy that he wanted to introduce to Cercle, with recruitment of coaching staff and players now focused on fitting the style, rather than the other way around. The principles were based on young players playing an attractive attacking style of football.

The summer of 2021 they brought in a number of young players, such as Jesper Daland (21), Rabbi Matondo (20) and Boris Popovic (21). Only two of these were from Monaco (Popovic and Edgaras Utkus), while the rest were signed from elsewhere in Europe. Recruitment has seen the club build a multi-cultural squad, with a number of internationals from different countries such as Togo and Lithuania. Team cohesion has been a big focus, and it has been seen in recent seasons that the players look to enjoy playing together.

The team started with the experienced Yves Vanderhaeghe, who had helped steer them clear of relegation last season. However, Vanderhaeghe was not the coach that played the style that Avina and his staff had envisioned for the club. He was let go, and in his place came former LASK Linz head coach Dominik Thalhammer.

In many ways, this was when the talent and vision appeared to come together. Much like in the Hollywood adaptation of Moneyball, where Brad Pitt’s character Billy Bean trades away players to force the coach to play the team he has built. Under Thalhammer, the side clicked and went on a long unbeaten run, much like the Oakland Athletics. They finished 10th, their highest finish since returning to the Pro League.

Yet, as is now the theme with Cercle, they were not satisfied, The Club wanted to push play-off two this season, and after a poor start Thalhammer was replaced by Miron Muslic. Under the Austrian’s former assistant, the side began to slightly adapt from press at all costs to intelligent pressing. The data backs this up. They led the league in defensive distances, the measurement the club uses to highlight the pressing action. In 2021/2022 they led the league with 46.90, but this regular season they increased that to 48.59 and remain number one. Compare this to 2020/2021 where the number was 41.98 and was 13th in the league. As a result, they achieved their goal of making play-off two and played a style that was very easy on the eye.

Yet the other goal was age. This season, the club has the youngest average aged squad in the league with 23.4. Anderlecht are in second place with 24.5, but Cercle also lead the league in how many minutes have been given to players under the age of 24. The side have given players under that age 73.2% of minutes this season, a league leading number and well above Eupen in second with 60.2%.

These numbers mean nothing if the team isn’t getting more points. That is something that has been improving year on year since 2019. During the 2019/20 season the team averaged 0.79 points per game, while this year they have reached 1.47, with the numbers increasing year on year in between. Goals have also increased, another indicator of the more attractive attacking style of football. In 2020, when Avina took over, the first season saw them average 1.18 goals per game, an increase from 0.93 the season before. This year they were up at 1.47, no doubt helped by the additions of Kevin Denkey in the winter of 2022 and Ayase Ueda in the summer.

Off the pitch, the club is becoming more professional. They now have between 60-65 permanent members of staff dealing with the running a club, an increase in what was in place when Monaco took over. Furthermore, the link with Monaco is not a one way system. There are weekly meetings between the two to share knowledge, which is working both ways.

Yet the club has been keen to state that making play-off two is just the start of their ambitions. Avina and his staff want to become a consistent top eight side, that can challenge the top sides on the pitch. Moreover, they want to have their own stadium and own training centre, as they currently share both areas with Club Brugge.

After six years, the club are keen for everyone to know that the relationship with Monaco has led to this moment. Ambition is certainly there, and it is clear to see that over the past couple of seasons Cercle have become a club that recruits and runs itself as well as any in the Pro League. Europe is a possibility this season, something that many would not have thought possible back in the summer of 2017.

GBeNeFN | Ben Jackson

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