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Kenny’s Kids: Josh Cullen Anderlecht Season in Review

Anderlecht maestro Josh Cullen is leading the way for the Irish abroad.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because an Irish player is playing on the continent, it means that they are excelling, or at least doing better than they would otherwise in England. It’s a case of out of sight, yes, but not necessarily out of mind as when they’re not playing on your television you can imagine whatever generous version of the player you please.

Far removed from the online scrutiny of Premier League supporters, Irish players like Graham Carey (CSKA Sofia), Zack Elbouzedi (AIK), Conor Noss (Borussia Monchengladbach) and Sean McDermott (Kristiansund) all ply their trade across Europe and, although not quite deserving of starting shirts from Stephen Kenny, they are all enjoying relative success in their respective locations. The same could be said for the League of Ireland’s brightest talents.

The movement towards Irish players exploring opportunities outside of the UK is positive but it is important to stay realistic about both the level of competition and the relative performance levels of the individual. Ultimately what you want to see announced next Wednesday is the strongest selection of Irish players possible, regardless of league or location and that is decided by the brain-work of the manager.

If his squad selections to date are anything to go by, Kenny knows this well. Such is the standard of international football that Irish players outside of the world’s six richest leagues must be outstanding within their division to make the grade. There were some predictions in 2020 that Kenny would include at least one League of Ireland player in every squad but players need to really stand out domestically to have that chance, while also fitting the Irish system.

Players like Elbouzedi (a winger for Stockholm’s AIK) and Danny Mandroiu (Shamrock Rovers attacking midfielder) have performed well in the last year but “well” isn’t necessarily enough  – players in leagues with lower coefficients need to be exceptional to make the international grade.

Right now there is only one player who fits that exceptional category and he plays for Anderlecht in the Belgian Pro League.

Josh Cullen

Anderlecht midfielder Josh Cullen.

Ireland midfielder Josh Cullen played nearly every minute of Anderlecht’s regular season fixtures in 2021/2022 to cement his status as a fan favourite in the Belgian capital. At the time of writing, he has 79 appearances to his name for Vincent Kompany’s men following a move from West Ham United that could not have turned out any better.

His ever-presence brings an ensuring reliability but no more so than his passing prowess. Across 34 league games this season, the 26-year-old completed 87.6% of his passes en route to UEFA Conference League qualification. If we take Anderlecht’s last five games as a sample of Cullen’s proficiency we will see pass completions of 81% (72/89), 87% (61/70), 83% (55/66), 92% (45/49) and 89% (73/82).

Interestingly, these impressive numbers actually dip from his early season form as his number of long passes increased – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. For instance, back in October he was making nearly ninety passes a game and, against Beerschot, he completed 85/89 passes which is a success rate of 96%. In December, he completed 73/77 passes (95%) against the same opponents. Those numbers fell slightly as the risk of his passes increased.

Cullen Importance.

We know too well how important that sort of ball rotation can be to a team having watched Cullen in the green shirt for a couple of years now. It’s an underrated ability which is most conspicuous in its absence – as we found against Lithuania. The struggles of Alan Browne and Conor Hourihane that night acted as a throwback to the decade that preceded Cullen’s emergence for Ireland as ball progression, tempo and all those other more intangible ingredients badly lacked in the unspectacular 1-0 victory.

Cullen’s selfless work-rate in and out of possession for Ireland, and indeed Anderlecht, ensures that no such problems arise in his presence, however. “He has only one thing in mind – the team,” explained Kompany in reference to Cullen’s playing style. “Himself comes after, in the background. If the team wins, it is because he did a lot of jobs that the others could not do.”

No assists, no problem?

Look away from the passing stats and the glaring statistic is that Cullen has only registered one goal and zero assists in 2021/2022. Acting as a Xavi-type metronome for club and country, he is essentially the heart-beat of the operation, but by adding the occasional high-risk pass to his game he would obviously have a better chance of bettering his return. There was some evidence of this development in recent months and although his long-passes are yet to lead directly to goals, they will eventually make defenders think twice when the ball is at his feet.

Yet, you get the sense that Cullen’s greatest strength is his selflessness and goal contribution numbers aren’t something that will ever play on his mind. If his lorry load of short passes help Ireland and Anderlecht to perform effectively and pick up results, is there really an issue anyway? As with Ireland, Cullen plays as part of a box midfield for Anderlecht and when you have talents like Lior Refaelov scoring thirteen goals a season, you can certainly afford to focus on the more unseen work.

Similarly, Callum Robinson and Chiedozie Ogbene have healthy returns in those advanced positions for Ireland while Jeff Hendrick is a perfect partner for advancing the ball that bit further up the park. Against Belgium, Cullen completed 47/55 of his passes and attempted no long balls, as the more advanced Hendrick completed 27/32 of his passes but played two long balls.

You mostly begin to understand Cullen’s value in the ‘six’ role when you are presented with his statistics relative to the other midfielders in the Belgian Pro League. The Irishman is in the top 2% of players for both pass quantity and pass success rate in the division, while he is in the top 10% for: passes to the final third, progressive passes and forward passes. In terms of defending he is also more than capable, making the top 1% of Belgian Pro League midfielders for defensive and offensive dual success, even if he doesn’t engage in all too many.

Josh Cullen Stats
Stats brought to you by @Forseeaball on Twitter.

Ireland lucky to have Anderlecht anchor Cullen.

For what felt like an eternity, Irish supporters wondered if a midfield player with a hunger to take the ball from his defenders and progress it forward would ever grace the Earth again. For somebody like Cullen to emerge, who not only progresses the ball but demands it again and again throughout matches, is a godsend for the Boys in Green. The Nations League is going to be quite a test of this Ireland team but with this hidden gem at the heart of Kenny’s team they can afford to be quietly confident.

The 19-time Ireland under-21 international took a risk by packing his bags for Belgium in 2020 but sometimes it’s worth taking a chance. Playing in Europe might put you out of your international manager’s eyeline, it might mean exceptional performances are needed to get noticed, but if the style of football is the perfect fit then this is where the road can lead. Josh Cullen is now one of Ireland’s most appreciated footballers and I suspect more credit is about to come his way.

To put it one way, if he brings his Anderlecht standards into the June internationals we are in for one hell of a summer.

For extensive coverage of Ireland’s best up and coming prospects follow Kenny’s Kids on Twitter. 

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