FEATURE | Dennis Bergkamp inspired Branco van den Boomen is Ligue 1’s best newcomer

This is the latest feature in our series counting down French football’s 20 hottest properties, those most likely to feature in elite clubs’ 2023 transfer plans. Look out for the next player tomorrow and follow the run down in full here on GFFN.

Football moves on quickly. So much so that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are already the inspiration for the game’s latest generation of talent. Kylian Mbappé, for example, grew up surrounded by posters of Ronaldo on his bedroom walls. Unusually, Branco van den Boomen’s idol, Dennis Bergkamp, was referred to as ‘old school’ by L’Equipe. Bergkamp, may have retired 16 years ago but van den Boomen processes the same upright elegance and deft touch and, although he’s yet to reach his Dutch counterpart’s level, watching the Toulouse midfielder can be just as fun.

‘Quarterback’ is the best way to describe van den Boomen’s on-field presence. Although it doesn’t entirely represent his skillset, the midfielder’s arrowed diagonal balls from deep that seem to hold up at the last second and drop into a forward’s lap are reminiscent of NFL equivalents Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers’ precise deep field throws to racing wide receivers. Few in Ligue 1, and no one outside Paris, strike a ball as cleanly as the Dutchman. Satisfyingly, van den Boomen’s graceful yet business-like technique sees him both punch through the ball and strike across it at the same time. As a rifled penalty against Angers earlier this season showed, that combination aids power as much as precision.

The confident 27-year-old is well aware of his quality, telling L’Équipe: “Everyone knows about my ability from set pieces, but passes at the right tempo and into the right zone are my biggest strength. In other areas, I’m perhaps not at the level of other players but in terms of passing, few are as good as me.” Set pieces are indeed a strength too. Over 37 Ligue 2 games last season, as Toulouse won the title, van den Boomen made 33 goal contributions from the base of midfield – 12 goals and 21 assists. Nine of those goals were from dead-ball situations, three direct free-kicks and six penalties, while several of his assists came from corners and set pieces. Unsurprisingly, van den Boomen was named the second tier’s player of the season.

With Phillip Montanier’s dynamic Toulouse forced into their own half more this season upon promotion, van den Boomen has been less prolific, instead influencing games further from the goal, but he still provided a respectable four assists in his first nine games. That tally, and his ability to orchestrate Ligue 1 midfields, is even more impressive considering this is his first meaningful top-flight season, aside from 23 outings for Heerenveen during the 2015/16 Eredivisie campaign and eight games for Willem II.

Although he graduated from Ajax’s prestigious youth system, the Dutchman has spent almost his entire career playing second-tier football prior to this season. Aided by the nuanced statistical analysis used by TFC’s recruitment team, Toulouse signed the player back in 2020 on the strength of 15 goal contributions in 24 games for De Graafschap, who were second in Holland’s second tier before the covid enforced cancellation.

Van den Boomen keenly demonstrated his range of passing and breadth of vision in the 4-2 demolition of Montpellier this season. A typically raking pass from between Toulouse’s centre-backs fell neatly into the path of Zakaria Aboukhlal who, clean through, side-footed home. Seven minutes later, charging forward into the area, the Dutchman assisted Farès Chaïbi’s strike via a backheel from the goal line. A whipped, dipping cross invited striker Thijs Dallinga to tap home the opener against Nice in August while French defences in both divisions have been tormented by unerringly precise free-kicks and corners over the last three seasons.

Continuing to apply his ability so effectively in making the jump to Ligue 1 is an impressive feat. Van den Boomen not only runs one of France’s most entertaining, dynamic and expansive outfits but has quickly become a leading creator in the division. By the end of October, the TFC man lead Europe’s top five leagues for key passes this season with 38, according to FBRef, while also featuring in Ligue 1’s top five for shot-creating actions (5th), expected assists (5th), passes into the area (4th), goal creating actions (4th) and passes into the final third (1st).

Despite lacking pace, the player puts his recent improvement down to increased mobility and fitness. “Some people said, when I was young, that I would never succeed because I didn’t run enough and I wasn’t coming back to defend,” van den Boomen told L’Équipe. “Now, I think I do… I loved Bergkamp’s style and his technical side. He played without fear, I do too. Having fun is the best motivation but I don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t defend.”

Despite unearthing his talent, Toulouse could lose van den Boomen for nothing next summer when his contract expires amid interest from clubs across the continent. Fabrizio Romano reported that clubs from Italy, Spain, Germany and France are already monitoring the midfielder who is free to sign a pre-contract agreement with other teams in January. When asked whether he’d want to play at a big club or be a big player at a potentially smaller side the Dutchman replied: “I’d like to be able to reconcile the two, see what my limits are. Why not play in a European competition? That’s also possible with Toulouse. We‘ll see. We’ll have time to talk about it during the break for the World Cup… It’s possible [I could leave for free]. Like Brecht [Dejaegere] and Stijn [Spierings], we’re all coming to the end of our contracts.”

Replacing all three of the team’s starting midfielders without receiving any transfer fees would be tough but, despite Toulouse’s recent success in targeting players other clubs don’t from some of Europe’s footballing backwaters, players in those leagues with van den Boomen’s technical ability and vision are rare. Wherever the Dutchman ends up, his employers will be getting a rare breed of creative midfielder, one with ‘old school’ charm but still perfectly suited to 2020s football.

Adam White

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