22 Midfielder Genoa (on loan from Al-Arabi) Belgium
2014 has been…
Erm, bizarre, to be quite frank.
In terms of pound for pound (or Euro for Euro, if you want to be pedantic), few players were as productive as Maxime Lestienne during the 2013-14 season. The former Mouscron winger was a regular starter on the left flank for Club Brugge and his return of ten goals during the Jupiler Pro League season was a more than respectable return for a wide man.
Of course, wingers, by definition, are there to make use of the wings - hence the name - and ensure that forwards receive a reasonable supply of goalscoring opportunities. Again, Lestienne did particularly well in this department and his tally of thirteen assists was none too shabby either.
Nuclear pace with an eye for both a goal and a pass, Lestienne really should have been a key player for Belgium as the national team embarked on a journey into the relative unknown this summer. That he wasn’t is down to a number of factors, and by considering these we can gain a reasonable assessment of exactly where Maxime Lestienne is at right now.
Aged 22, Maxime Lestienne certainly fits the bill of being an exciting youngster but his emergence as a quick wide player of repute has run parallel with the rampant rise of several other Belgians that occupy a similar position on the pitch (left, occasionally right, wing, attacking midfield); notably Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Nacer Chadli and Kevin De Bruyne. There’s also the versatile talents of Adnan Januzaj and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco to consider here, just in case a touch more competition is required (it isn’t). Lestienne was selected for international duty once, in early 2013 for a friendly against the US, but he didn’t play and a further call from Marc Wilmots hasn’t materialised since.
Even with competition so intense, Lestienne is as a capable as any of his peers and had the form to back it up, so further call ups should have been a given. However….
If you can cast your mind back to September 2013, the Belgian Under-21 team faced a couple of significant matches against Northern Ireland and Italy. Somewhat foolishly, Lestienne invited his girlfriend to his hotel room whilst on international duty. The Belgian FA’s response was swift, with the winger not only dropped from the Under-21 squad, but also hit with a six-month ban from further international selection at any level.
Despite ‘Hotel-gate’, Lestienne, on form at least, had a more than reasonable case for international recognition. His scoring and assist record, of which centre forward Tom de Sutter was one of several grateful recipients, were not flash in the pan stuff either. The winger bagged eighteen goals and laid on another thirteen for colleagues during 12/13. In total, Lestienne was directly involved in more than fifty goals over two seasons for the Blauw-Zwart, but his form dipped at perhaps just the wrong moment as his ban ended and Brasil 2014 came into view.
Club Brugge had emerged as the leading challengers to Standard Liege and as the Belgian league hit its critical 30 game mark, Brugge were only four points adrift of the leaders. The Belgian top flight is one of several leagues that split the final stages of a season into a playoff format, with the top eight teams going toe to toe to decide the title.
A strong run of six wins from seven bode well as the playoffs beckoned, and a resounding thrashing of Lokoren in their first game, in which Lestienne excelled, set his team away as the form side. However, form counted for little as Anderlecht dismantled Brugge with a three-goal blast inside forty minutes of their first playoff tie. With youngsters Youri Tielemans and Aleksandr Mitrovic proving elusive, Brugge, and Lestienne in particular, fluffed their lines. Further positive results occurred, but the die had been cast and with Liege continuing to recede, Anderlecht stepped in to regain the title.
The playoffs, from Brugge’s perspective, were, ultimately, disappointing, and especially so for Lestienne. While other players made a claim for selection into Marc Wilmot’s 23, the youngster stalled and his output across the final ten matches was limited as inconsistency took a firm grip.
Now we could at this point suggest that Lestienne was unlucky. Competition was incredibly high and a loss of form occurred at just the wrong moment, as it does with many his age. However, there’s also a very good chance that extra-curricular activity worked against him and may continue to do so for a significant period. The perils of young love eh Maxime?
With the curtain closed on 2013-14, Lestienne delivered one final act for Brugge, turning in a more than adequate display to help his team slip past Brondby in their Europa League Qualifier. He’d play again for Brugge during the current season, but both club and player were clearly thinking in terms of a departure and any intensity was missing from his game. His final act in the Jupiler League was to replace Fernando for the closing minutes of the Brugge derby, before arriving as a late sub in a Europa League tie against Grasshopper Zurich.
Optimistic that a Bundesliga side would negotiate a transfer (Schalke were credited with an interest), or that CSKA would rekindle their long-standing regard, the summer drifted along without note. Then, quite unexpectedly, an £8m+ move to Qatar’s Al-Arabi and an immediate loan to Serie A outfit Genoa transpired.
As we said, bizarre.
This is a difficult one to unravel. On the face of things, Lestienne has been rewarded with a big money transfer and has moved up in terms of the standard of the league he is currently involved in. Nevertheless, it all feels a little more like one step forward, two steps back. Genoa has a good record for developing players and there’s no reason to suggest anything different will happen here but things aren’t going to be easy.
A cursory glance as the playing roster down at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris will tell you this is a squad not exactly short of creative flair on the left side of the pitch. That competition issue at international level is replicated on the domestic front as our man vies with Juraj Kucka, Iago Falqué and Diego Perotti for Gian Piero Gasperini’s attention. So far, Lestienne’s Italian odyssey has offered very little to get excited about. Genoa have started very well but our man is yet to make his mark.
Whilst there is plenty of time to address the individual challenges offered by Serie A, the one thing that we really don’t get is the transfer to Qatar.
We’re not investigative journalists at IBWM, but we know a few people; in the way that you might know someone who could fix your car, lay a patio, chin your ex-boyfriend. We’ve asked around, and there still doesn’t seem to be any real clarification or justification for Lestienne’s move. Theories as to why the transfer came about range from the ridiculous – ‘they may just fancy him as a player’, to the entirely plausible – ‘two years in Qatar might just be enough to get you nationalised, and hey, isn’t that a major international tournament coming up in 2022?’.
Al-Arabi were obviously scouting in Belgium as they also picked up Standard Liege’s Imoh Ezekiel in the summer. Like Lestienne, Ezekiel is under 22 and could quite easily have moved to a stronger league in Europe. However, there’s no consistency here. Ezekiel is playing in Qatar, while Lestienne has been loaned to Genoa. Are Al-Arabi hoping to make a few bob next summer by selling him? They can’t be short of cash, surely. If his future is in Qatar, we can’t quite see Lestienne getting much attention from Marc Wilmots in the coming years, but will wager he has a lovely home and a fleet of nice cars. Your call Maxime.
Maxime Lestienne is a good player and has enough about him to see off all challengers but quite how 2015 is going to play out is anyone’s guess. More a link man than a direct crosser of the ball, he looks best when running at defences in tandem with someone of a similar ilk, i.e. quick. He’ll draw fouls galore, so any counter attacking team that is well placed to make good use of set pieces will be best served by his talents.
It’s only when you see the level of competition that Lestienne is up against that you get a sense of just how improbable a call up for the full national side has become, so maybe he is already looking at options. Maybe that’s why he’s agreed to Qatar. But if he’s to truly develop as a player, he’ll need a good season at Genoa to get things moving. If that doesn’t transpire, god only knows where he’ll be this time next year.
"Maxime Lestienne is hard to fathom. He left Club Brugge for Qatar; now with Genoa. Criticised for lack of effort, who can predict the future?" - John Chapman
"Maxime Lestienne was the top scoring midfielder in the regular season of the 2013/14 Jupiler Pro League (10)." - OptaJoe
D Is there a career plan? We’d love to know…
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