Anderlecht's newest young gem Dennis Praet has all the timidity one might expect from an 18-year-old, but he has kept his eyes wide open during his two months in the limelight. "I've been surprised by the impact Anderlecht have on people's lives," he says, and he could easily be including his own life in that assessment.
The attacking midfielder has been with the Brussels giants for two years now, but it is only recently that he has made his breakthrough. Starting berths in the UEFA Champions League and two goals in 14 league matches attest to the fact that everything is moving quickly for Praet, who looks to be the latest shimmering talent off a Belgian production line that has yielded stars such as Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel and Steven Defour in recent years.
"I'm very down to earth and I'm lucky enough to have good people around me in my family and at the club," he explained to FIFA.com. At club level, the most important figure for the youngster is John van den Brom, the Dutch coach who arrived in Brussels during the summer. Since Van den Brom's appointment, the Leuven native has been rewarded for all his patient hard work following his move from Genk, when he chose Anderlecht above potentially more lucrative destinations. "If I'd opted for money, I would have gone elsewhere," he says.
Praet enjoyed his first minutes on the pitch in the Belgian Cup last term, but he has exploded onto the scene this season under Van Den Brom's almost paternal tutelage. "It's not easy to break through at Anderlecht, but I've been fortunate to have the perfect coach," he says. "He believes in the younger players and has given me a lot of confidence."
The presence of the former Vitesse Arnhem tactician certainly appears to have been crucial for the new darling of the Parc Astrid faithful. "His arrival has clearly changed everything," adds former Anderlecht coach Johan Boskamp. "It's not always possible to promote youngsters, play attractive football and win games at the same time, but Van Den Brom has managed it and Dennis has benefited from that."
Dennis plays like Iniesta. He's got good technique, he's solid, holds onto the ball well, keeps things simple and doesn't panic.
Lille scout and former Anderlecht player Georges Heylens is of a similar opinion, noting that Les Mauves have found the ideal partnership. "I know that Van den Brom has the right approach," he says. "I trust him. I saw him last year at Vitesse and he's not afraid to put his faith in the younger players, while his attacking style is a perfect fit for Dennis to really blossom."
"I can feel the faith the staff have in me from day to day, and obviously that helps," says Praet, who has had to adapt to the pressure to get results, the need for consistency and "the impact of the media". On target against Club Brugge in the league and a starter against AC Milan in Europe, the player tipped for a place in the Belgian national team is now on the same learning curve previously followed by Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku, two more precocious talents who became Anderlecht regulars before their 19th birthdays. Praet is not a fan of the comparison, though, "even if I'm honoured to have my name mentioned alongside two such players".
He is also determined to avoid the pitfalls that threaten all young players who burst into prominence, two years after he rejected the lure of foreign riches. "I'm staying who I am and, away from football, I spend my time with my childhood friends. They're not at all involved in football, and that's what I need."
Indeed, Praet seems to have a keen grasp on what he needs, and, given that he weighs just 70kg, he has made it a priority to bulk up. "I know I have to get more muscle, but above all it's important that I retain my qualities, which are speed and acceleration," he explains, before pointing out with a grin, "Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta aren't exactly big either".
If those are comparisons that Praet prefers, they may not be too wildly inaccurate either. "Dennis plays like Iniesta," says his Anderlecht team-mate Tom De Sutter. "He's got good technique, he's solid, holds onto the ball well, keeps things simple and doesn't panic. His vision of the game is incredible." Living up to such rich praise will be one more challenge facing the gifted playmaker as he continues to make his mark.