The closest Sporting Charleroi have ever come to winning the Belgian First Division was back in the 1968-69 season, when they finished runners-up to Standard Liège. Their early form in the current campaign suggests they are looking to go one better this year. After 11 games, they sit joint top on 23 points, alongside last year’s champions Club Brugge. Additionally, they have a game in hand over Brugge. They are a club on the up and, so far, their challenge for their first-ever title in the top flight of Belgian football looks a serious one.
Manager Karim Belhocine knows it is still the early days in the season and has made sure to add extra quality and depth to his squad. Having signed Saido Berahino on loan from Zulte Waregem, Jon Flanagan has become the second Englishman to join Les Zèbres within the last month. Flanagan has been a free agent, having been released in the summer by Rangers.
It has been a difficult few years for Flanagan. He came through the ranks of his hometown club Liverpool, where he made his debut in 2010. However, his real breakthrough came in the 2013-14 season, becoming a regular in Brendan Rodgers’ side, as well as winning an England cap ahead of the 2014 World Cup, and the world was seemingly at his feet. However, his career never really kicked on. Injury problems saw him drop down the pecking order at Anfield. After loan spells at Bolton and Burnley, Flanagan was released in 2018, having made 51 appearances for the reds.
He joined Rangers who were managed by his former captain, Steven Gerrard, in a bid to get his career back on track. However, it never quite worked out there either for the man once dubbed ‘the scouse Cafu’. Across two years, he made only 21 league appearances. His move to Charleroi is a huge opportunity for both parties. Flanagan needs games and, if he can get back to his best, Charleroi may have just pulled off a masterstroke signing.
Fitting in tactically
At Rangers, Steven Gerrard favoured a 4-3-3 formation. Flanagan predominantly played at either his favoured right-back position or at left-back.
Whilst injuries heavily attributed to a lack of first-team appearances at Rangers, the form of club captain James Tavernier and Borna Barišić were also a big factor in not playing regularly. Flanagan became a back-up for either position.
He will have to fight to make the full-back position his own at Charleroi. They are a team in excellent form. At left-back, Charleroi have Joris Kayembe, who is unlikely to lose his place anytime soon. Whilst Flanagan will provide cover for Kayembe, he will primarily push Joris Van Cleemput for the starting spot at right-back.
Manager Karim Belhocine tends to always set up defensively with a back four. The analysis shows this will certainly suit Flanagan. Belhocine has favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation this season, as seen in the image below. He has also opted for a 4-4-1-1 and a traditional 4-4-2 on occasions. On the left, Kayembe will want to do what he is good at – getting forward as much as possible. The addition of Flanagan will provide balance to the backline as well as stability if the play breaks down with Kayembe out of position.
Flanagan’s signature will provide a big sigh of relief for Charleroi, who have needed to add to their defensive options after Maxime Busi departed for Parma in Serie A. Right-back Stergos Marinos also looks set to leave the club after seven years.
Having scored one goal along with a handful of assists in 100+ first-team appearances, Flanagan might not be considered your typical ‘modern offensive full-back’. Nevertheless, he is a player who likes to get himself forward up the pitch. We can see this from his heat map, shown below.
As expected with being right-footed, he offers more of an attacking threat down the right, compared to the left. He is positionally well-disciplined and not afraid to get himself forward up the pitch to support attacking play. An example of this can be seen in the image below of Flanagan up against Hearts. With space in front of him, Flanagan bombs forward to provide a wide attacking option to his teammate.
On the ball, he is a player who likes to play positively. In the SPL last year, he averaged 10.98 progressive passes per game. He likes to combine with the player in front of him, providing both overlapping and decoy runs to open space for others. A classic example of this can be seen in the image below. Flanagan advances about 20 metres into space. He then sends the ball wide to his teammate in front of him, continuing his run towards the 18-yard box. By doing this, he took an opposing defender with him which provided space for his teammate to cut inside into a dangerous attacking position.
As we can see in the table, this impressively ranked him 11th out of all defenders in the league. As for his progressive runs and willingness to get forward, he averaged 1.29 per game. Whilst there is room for improvement here, this stat would likely considerably increase when seeing Flanagan in a wing-back role.
Flanagan is not a player you will see crossing the ball time and time again when in advanced positions. This is something he can maybe add more off in a game. Crossing is something we see most of the best full-backs contribute to attacking play. Flanagan averaged 2.37 per game last season with a 27.27 accuracy percentage. Compare that with teammate Borna Barišić, who averaged 7.77 per game, with a 39.55 accuracy percentage.
Whilst he does like to get forward, Flanagan’s key responsibility at full-back is to defend, and it is something he does very well. He is a player who is defensively sound. Charleroi will not expect the ‘out of the ordinary’ with Flanagan. More so expectancy of both consistency and discipline in his performances, which is what he did very well in his breakthrough years at Liverpool.
Coming through the ranks at Liverpool, Flanagan learned his trade playing the right way. He is a confident player on the ball and his passing ability is impressive. He averaged 57.27 passes per 90 minutes last year. More impressive was his passing accuracy, which was at 87.22%. His passing per game ranked him sixth in the league out of defenders, whilst his accuracy was also one of the best. Whilst he did play considerable games fewer than others, this is still a very impressive statistic that shows his quality on the ball.
Last season, Flanagan did not blow anyone away with his defensive duel record. He recorded 5.6 per game, with a success rate of 46.15%. This placed him 47th out the defenders in the SPL. More impressively was his recoveries record. Averaging 10.12 per 90 minutes, he ranked tenth in recoveries. This suggests he is tactically astute and has a good reading of the game.
Flanagan is strong in one on one situations. Despite not being electrifying in his turn of pace, he is deceivingly quick enough to keep up with most of the fastest wingers he comes up against. In the image below, we see Flanagan finding himself in a one on one on the halfway line. The defender does an excellent job of positioning himself so he shows the attacker down the line, limiting his space to operate in. Backtracking while awaiting a moment’s hesitations, Flanagan senses his chance and wins the ball with a tackle, keeping it in play and passing possession to a teammate. This is the kind of quality Charleroi will hope to see a lot of.
Flanagan only played 730 minutes of competitive football last season. Whilst the data provided in this article is captured from a small amount of playing time, Flanagan’s talent is undoubted. The man born in Liverpool has had a torrid time since 2014. Having said that, he is now 27 years old and at a time in his career where he needs to get back to playing regular football. If he can stay injury-free, then it will be really interesting to see how Flanagan gets on at Charleroi.
Van Cleemput will provide competition at right-back, however, his game time has come as a result of Maxime Busi’s departure. Busi was impressive last year in his debut season as Charleroi finished third in league play. In the four games, Van Cleemput has featured this season, Charleroi has only won once. Bringing in a player of Flanagan’s quality suggests that Belhocine is not overly convinced by his existing right-back options.
He has joined a team which are in good form, play exciting football and play a formation that will suit Flanagan. Manager Karim Belhocine has been a long time admirer of the defender, which will boost the confidence of his new signing. Flanagan will, of course, join his former England youth teammate Berahino, another 27-year-old with something to prove to his doubters. If Charleroi can get both Englishmen fit, playing consistently, then they might well have pulled off two of the signings of the season. That is, of course, a big if.