After becoming champions in the Challenger Pro League, the second tier of Belgian football, KVC Westerlo garnered a lot of praise at the start of this season for their performances. Still, it took them a while to consistently win some matches. After six points in seven games, a good win against RSC Anderlecht got them the momentum they needed, as they also won the three games after. Now after seventeen matches, they have 26 points and are comfortably in 6th place.
KVC Westerlo strengthened their side a lot during the summer with some solid loan signings like Nacer Chadli, Nicolas Madsen and Nene Dorgeles. They also permanently signed Lyle Foster, who was already on loan with them the year before. Someone else who also stayed for another year is the Club Brugge-loanee Maxim De Cuyper.
Born in Knokke-Heist, adjacent to the Dutch border, De Cuyper was picked up by Club Brugge when he was 7 years old. In February 2020, De Cuyper made his debut for the first team and not just in any match. In the first knock-out stage of the Europa League De Cuyper started against Manchester United (1-1), where Charles De Ketelaere also made his first appearance for the club. A week later, De Cuyper also played the full 90 minutes in the away match, which they lost 5-0, but he didn’t make any minutes in the league that season.
The season after, Club Brugge’s second team Club NXT got a spot in the Challenger Pro League. It was a tough year for the Belgian youngsters who finished last with 13 points in 28 matches. De Cuyper still managed to impress with eight goal contributions in 20 matches and was sent out on loan to KVC Westerlo the season after. Here he scored six goals and gave five assists in a title-winning season. The 21-year-old played all over the pitch for Westerlo last season, starting in almost every match.
De Cuyper can play on every spot on the wings but has really solidified himself as the starting left-back in KVC Westerlo’s 4-4-2 formation this season. He started every single match in the league so far, only missing seventeen minutes in total. De Cuyper’s strengths surely lie in his abilities on the ball but that doesn’t mean he is a bad defender.
In Westerlo’s system, De Cuyper has quite a lot of freedom to go forward and stay forward, with either their right back staying on their own half or one of the two central midfielders dropping back. When he does this he often sits quite narrow, almost like an extra central midfielder. When Westerlo loses the ball on their opponent’s half, De Cuyper reads the game very well and knows when he can step up even higher and counter-press or when he needs to drop back to his own half. The 21-year-old is also very good at anticipating on his opponent’s passes, allowing him to easily intercept them.
Defensively on his own half, I feel like he still has some steps to make. De Cuyper stands at 182 centimetres tall and has a lean build. He doesn’t look like the strongest defender but the aggression and intensity he puts in his duels balance that out quite nicely. Still, I think he probably would benefit from adding some more muscle mass. De Cuyper is surprisingly fast. Especially on the first few meters he looks very quick, maybe not quite as fast as the very explosive wingers but he does very well keeping up with them. In the air he does fine for a fullback. He has a decent leap but sometimes doesn’t have the best timing in the air.
If we compare De Cuyper to the other fullbacks in the Jupiler Pro League, with at least 630 minutes this season, he is a bit above average in the percentage of defensive duels that he wins.
He is usually very patient when his opponent dribbles towards him, waiting for the right moment to make his challenge. But if he sees the opportunity he can defend a lot more proactive trying to get in front of his opponent before they even have a chance to take a touch. In the Eleven Insiders podcast De Cuyper talks about himself as a defender and some aspects of the game he still can improve on. From his own perspective he can have difficult time against wingers who can easily pass both around the inside and outside, which is something that you definitely can see. Especially the very agile players that can quickly change direction can give De Cuyper a real run for his money. One thing that I noticed is that when someone dribbles at him, De Cuyper has the tendency to bend through his knees a lot. This seems to make it a lot harder for him to react when his opponent decides to switch his direction. Against the more powerful direct wingers, like Aron Dönnum or Andreas Skov Olsen, he put in some really solid shifts this season.
Looking back at Westerlo’s matches against KRC Genk (6-1 loss) where he faced Joseph Paintsil, who is sort of a mix of the powerful and agile winger, he had a much more difficult match. He did okay in the 1v1 duels, although Paintsil beat him a few times, but mainly struggled with the diagonal runs of the Ghanian winger. In the 7th minute Paintsil made a run inside the box and was left unmarked, which resulted in an easy goal for him. I’m not sure if there was a communication issue here and the left centre back should’ve tracked him or that De Cuyper made a mistake here, but it shouldn’t have been so easy for Paintsil.
As I said, in possession is really where his main qualities lie. In build-up he is very comfortable to receive the ball, mainly near the touchline. Often he opens his hips and is then able to play a one-touch pass to the left midfielder. Other times when he is being pressed, he positions himself like he will play this pass but will then take a touch to the inside, giving him more passing opportunities. If he has a bit more time on his own half he will often look for a long pass to his striker, who will then drop it back to one of the midfielders.
De Cuyper is not a classic full back who will just keep making overlapping runs. He varies his runs and as I pointed out earlier often plays as an extra playmaker in the middle. The alumnus of the Club Brugge academy has a fantastic left foot though and his crossing is really solid overall. However, I think he gets most dangerous when he has the opportunity to play a little more central. A prime example of this is a beautiful assist against Charleroi where he is really composed around the box and plays a lovely through ball with his weaker foot to right back Reynolds.
Maxim De Cuyper scans very well and his spatial awareness is on a very high level. He often plays lovely through passes or early crosses if he spots one of his teammates making the run. His distribution overall is very strong. The 21-year-old has great passing range and can play good switches to the right. De Cuyper has a decent right foot and is not afraid to put in a cross in with it but I noticed that when pressured he is a bit inconsistent if he has to use his weak foot. As I pointed out earlier he doesn’t put in that many crosses, around average for a fullback, but he is very often involved in Westerlo’s attacks. Something which is clear if you look at the data as he is quite high up in the amount of passes to the final third he gives compared to the other fullbacks in the league.
As he also has been playing as a winger a lot he is also great technically. He has a fantastic first touch and good ball control. He doesn’t take on his direct opponent very often but mostly will go for a simple body feint if he does so. Against KRC Genk he looked a little uncomfortable with them pressing him a lot, which resulted in a few losses of possession. Normally he seems to do fine in tight spaces but that match he needed a bit too much time on some occasions.
Conclusion & Future
All in all I think Maxim De Cuyper is a fantastic full back. He can certainly improve in his defensive 1v1 duels but his anticipation and intensity really help him. He always gives everything for his side and barely missed a minute so far this season. Offensively De Cuyper offers a lot, with his fantastic left foot he can cause a lot of trouble for his opposition. I think De Cuyper would excell even more in a formation with three centre backs and two wingbacks. Even though he has shown he performs great in a four at the back system, this would give him a little more offensive freedom and fewer defensive 1 on 1 situations.
Returning to Club Brugge would be the ideal scenario. That’s how we envisioned it. You never know what happens or is coming, but it would be ideal to really break through after two years on loan.
In the Eleven Insiders podcast I mentioned earlier, the defender also talked about his future and his comeback to Club Brugge, as his loan spell ends after the season: “Returning to Club Brugge would be the ideal scenario. That’s how we envisioned it. You never know what happens or is coming, but it would be ideal to really break through after two years on loan.”
However, he also acknowledges the fact that if he keeps performing like this a bigger club could even be interested in him. If that happens he said he will take his time to make a good decision.
Personally, I think Club Brugge would be the perfect step for De Cuyper next season. With the talented Björn Meijer he will have quite some competition for his spot but as they mostly play a 3-5-2 it would be a fantastic fit. After one or two good seasons for Brugge I can definitely see him make the step to one of the top five leagues. I also hope to see him play for the national team at the European Championship in 2024, which I think is a pretty realistic expectation.