Anderlecht maestro Josh Cullen is paving the way for the Irish abroad.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because an Irish player is playing on the Continent, it means they are excelling, or at least doing better than they otherwise would in England. It’s a case of out of sight, yes, but not necessarily out of mind, because when they’re not playing on your TV, you can imagine whichever generous version of the player appeals to you.
Away from online Premier League fan scrutiny, Irish players like Graham Carey (CSKA Sofia), Zack Elbouzedi (AIK), Conor Noss (Borussia Mönchengladbach) and Sean McDermott (Kristiansund) are all plying their trade through the Europe and, while not quite deserving of Stephen Kenny’s starter shirts, they are all relatively successful in their respective slots. The same could be said for the brightest talents in the League of Ireland.
The move towards Irish players exploring opportunities outside the UK is positive, but it is important to be 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 possible selection of Irish players, regardless of league or venue, and that is decided by the brains of the manager.
If his team selections to date are anything to go by, Kenny knows it. The standard of international football is such that Irish players outside the six richest leagues in the world must be outstanding within their division to qualify. There were predictions in 2020 that Kenny would include at least one League of Ireland player in every team, but players really need to shine domestically to have that chance, while adjusting to the Irish system.
Players like Elbouzedi (AIK Stockholm winger) and Danny Mandroiu (Shamrock Rovers attacking midfielder) performed well last year, but ‘good’ is not necessarily enough – players from leagues with lower coefficients must be exceptional to make the international grade.
Currently, there is only one player who fits this exceptional category and he plays for Anderlecht in the Belgian Pro League.
Anderlecht midfielder Josh Cullen.
Irish midfielder Josh Cullen has played every minute of Anderlecht’s regular season matches in 2021/2022 to cement his status as a fan favorite in the Belgian capital. As of this writing, he has 79 appearances to his name for Vincent Kompany’s men following a transfer from West Ham United which could not have gone better.
Its omnipresence brings guaranteed reliability but no more than its temporary prowess. In 34 league appearances this season, the 26-year-old has 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 skill, we will see successes of 81% (72/89), 87% (61/70), 83% (55/66), 92% ( 45/49) and 89% (73/82).
Interestingly, those impressive numbers are actually declining from his early-season form as his long passing count increased – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. For example, in October he was making almost ninety passes per game and against Beerschot he made 85 of 89 passes, a success rate of 96%. In December, he made 73/77 assists (95%) against the same opponents. Those numbers dropped slightly as the risk of his passes increased.
Josh Cullen comes out after completing 73/77 passes (95% accuracy, including 9 long balls), earning the most tackles of any player (3) and making two interceptions against Beerschot 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
— Kenny’s Kids (@KennysKids) December 27, 2021
We know all too well how important that kind of ball rotation can be for a team that has been watching Cullen in the green jersey for a few years now. It’s an underrated ability that’s most notable in his absence – as we saw against Lithuania. The struggles of Alan Browne and Conor Hourihane that night acted as a throwback to the decade before Cullen’s emergence for Ireland as ball progression, tempo and all those other more intangible ingredients were sorely lacking in the unspectacular 1-0 victory.
Cullen’s selfless work rate in and out of possession for Ireland, and even Anderlecht, however, ensures no such issues arise in his presence. “He only has one thing on his mind – the team,” Kompany explained in reference to Cullen’s style of play. “He himself comes after, in the background. If the team wins, it’s because he did a lot of jobs that the others couldn’t do.
Josh Cullen isn’t just a good passer of the ball, he was impressive in most areas yesterday and I’ll break down his performance as a GIF on @PunditArena tomorrow 🇮🇪⚽️🙌
— Kenny’s Kids (@KennysKids) October 10, 2021
No support, no problem?
Don’t look at the passing stats and the glaring stat is that Cullen has registered just one goal and no assists in 2021/2022. Acting as a Xavi-type metronome for club and country, he is essentially the heartbeat of the operation, but by adding the occasional high-risk pass to his game he would obviously have a better chance of improving his return . There has been 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.
Still, you get the sense that Cullen’s greatest strength is his selflessness, and the numbers of his goal contribution will never play in his mind. If his truckload of short passes helps Ireland and Anderlecht perform effectively and deliver results, is there really a problem anyway? As with Ireland, Cullen is part of a 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 invisible work.
Josh Cullen’s Anderlecht secured a place in the third round of UEFA Conference League playoffs after beating Rotal Antwerp 2-1 in the Belgian Pro League 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
— Kenny’s Kids (@KennysKids) May 12, 2022
Likewise, Callum Robinson and Chiedozie Ogbene have good returns in those forward positions for Ireland while Jeff Hendrick is an ideal partner to advance the ball a bit further up the park. Against Belgium, Cullen completed 47/55 of his passes and attempted no long balls, while the more advanced Hendrick completed 27/32 of his passes but played two long balls.
You especially begin to understand Cullen’s value in the ‘six’ role when you’re presented with his stats compared to other Belgian Pro League midfielders. The Irishman is in the top 2% of players for passing quantity and pass completion 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 defence, he is also more than capable, being in the top 1% of Belgian midfielders in the Pro League for both defensive and attacking success, even if he doesn’t commit too often.
Ireland are lucky to have Anderlecht Cullen anchor.
For what felt like an eternity, Irish fans wondered if a midfielder eager to take the ball from his defenders and push it forward would ever be back on earth. To have someone like Cullen emerge who not only advances the ball but demands it again and again throughout games is a boon for the Boys in Green. The Nations League is going to be quite a test for this Irish side, but with this hidden gem at the heart of Kenny’s squad, they can afford to be quietly confident.
The 19-time Ireland Under-21 international has taken a risk packing his bags for Belgium in 2020 but sometimes it’s worth the chance. Playing in Europe may take you away from your international manager’s sights, it may mean outstanding performances are needed to get noticed, but if the style of football is right on target, that’s where the road can lead. Josh Cullen is now one of Ireland’s most beloved footballers and I suspect more credit is about to go to him.
To put it in one way, if he brings his Anderlecht standards to the June internationals, we’ll have one hell of a summer.
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