AC Milan secured their final acquisition of the January transfer window on deadline day as Alexis Saelemaekers arrived from Anderlecht.
The Belgian starlet has joined on loan with an option to buy for a potential fee that is being widely reported as €7million, including the cost of the loan and the buyout.
The right midfielder will provide cover for the now-established starter Samu Castillejo after Suso sealed his move to Sevilla on Wednesday evening.
At just 20 years of age and coming from a league that not many know much about, it would be fair to say Saelemaekers is somewhat of an unknown quality, so just what can Milan fans expect?
Saelemaekers was born on June 27 1999 in Berchem-Sainte-Agathe, Belgium – one of the regions of the nation’s capital Brussels.
He played his youth football with his local side Anderlecht, and October 2017 signed his first senior deal with the club, penning a contract until 2019 after impressing at U17, U19 and reserve level.
On 16 February 2018 he made his official senior debut for Anderlechy against Sint-Truiden, coming on in the 77th minute – the exact same time he came on for his Milan debut against Hellas Verona.
In June 2018, the 18-year-old Saelemaekers renewed his deal with the Purple & White until 2022, and in the 2019-20 season he had begun to establish himself as a regular starter, starting in 13 of his 16 appearances. Then, Milan swooped to sign him on loan.
His record for Anderlecht in all competitions reads as follows: 64 appearances, two goals and 11 assists.
The interested thing about Saelemaekers is that not many people seem to know his best position. The Belgium international has been deployed in a number of different positions already this campaign with his previous side.
In fact, as per transfermarkt, he has played eight games as a left winger for Anderlecht and four games as a left winger, amassing a goal and an assist in each of those positions. However, he has also played as an attacking midfielder four times, showing his versatility.
And then, of course, there is the fact that he came on at right-back for his Milan debut on Sunday, perhaps showing that head coach Stefano Pioli has some interesting ideas about his potential role.
Saelemaekers gathered in front of the media at Casa Milan on Tuesday morning for his official unveiling, and shed some light on his playing style.
“I entered as a right back, it’s a role I like. From a defensive point of view I can play well, but I can also play the same offensively. I always try to play my best and help my teammates.
“I have not yet spoken well with the coach [about a role], but from what I understand they have a specific plan for me.
“Best characteristic? Crossing, in my opinion, I’m good at assisting. My main characteristic is making crosses.”
The general consensus though is that Saelemaekers is a very direct player who likes to dribble and take his man on, and always looks to generate opportunities for the forwards. He plays at a high intensity too, which makes him potentially an ideal wing-back candidate given his energy in covering both ends of the right flank.
However, Saelemaekers seems to be a player who is actually a throwback to a position that no longer gets seen much any more: the inverted full-back. These are players which tend to spend time in the centre of the pitch – be it offensively or defensively – and try to impact the play by spotting the half-spaces that pop up between opposition lines.
Consequently, this same vision has been evidenced by Anderlecht manager Vincent Kompany‘s decision to use him as an attacking midfielder four times this season already – showing that the promising Belgian can be effective in those key action areas due to his engine.
Kompany, of course, played under a system at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola which made use of inverted full-backs. What Pioli wants to do, however, remains to be seen.
Given that Saelemaekers arrived at the end of the window as Suso headed out of the Milanello exit door, it seems fair to compare the two and what they bring.
Looking at Soccerment‘s player analytics tool and comparing the performance of the duo in the league in the 2018-19 season (therefore a better sample size), there are a number of interesting revelations.
First of all, it is worth noting that the Spaniard played 3030 minutes to the Belgian’s 1980, and his combined 17 goals and assists last season (7G, 10A) massively outweighs Saelemaekers’ six assists.
Saelemaekers connected with 28% of crosses on average to Suso’s 26%, while the former also came out on top with a marginally better pass completion rate of 84% to Suso’s 83%.
The Sevilla man though had a better dribble completion rate (67% to 55%) and shot on target rate (42% to 19%), though as expected he falls short on aerial duels (22% to 51%) and tackle success rate (64% to 72%).
These stats are perhaps the best way of defining the difference in roles the two will occupy: Suso is an out-and-out winger who provides an attacking threat, while Saelemaekers is a wide midfielder/wing-back who is more defensive minded by nature, but understands his responsibilities on the creative side too.
Deal or no deal?
Despite all of the aforementioned, it would still be fair to label Alexis Saelemaekers as an unknown quantity. His versatility should only be seen as a good thing, because it means Pioli and possible future coaches can mould him into exactly the player he wants.
Those expecting Suso’s offensive output (though not seen as much this season) will likely be disappointed, and a period of adaptation needed during which the fans and Pioli will have to be patient.
It is of course a loan with option to buy, so his future at San Siro beyond June is not even certain. One thing is for sure though from his first press conference: Saelemaekers is delighted to be at Milan, and everyone should get behind him from the start.
Transfer rating: 6/10