BELGIUM boast an array of talent which is lighting up England’s top flight, James McArthur tells Martin Hannan.
WHEN Belgium’s manager Marc Wilmots named his squad of 24 for the World Cup qualifier against Scotland in Brussels on Tuesday, attention was drawn to the fact that no fewer than ten of the Belgians ply their trade in England’s Premier League.
That was exactly the same number of Scottish players from the Premier League originally picked by Scotland manager Craig Levein. Scotland had five home-based players, Belgium just three, suggesting that the current crop of Belgian internationalists, though young in years, have perhaps the edge in experience of playing in different countries with different styles.
Even with Marouane Fellaini of Everton pulling out through injury, the remaining nine Belgian exiles-in-England are a formidable force.
They are goalkeeper Simon Mignolet of Sunderland; defenders Vincent Kompany of Manchester City, Thomas Vermaelen of Arsenal and Jan Vertoghen of Spurs; midfielder Moussa Dembele of Spurs, and forwards Christian Benteke of Aston Villa, Romelu Lukaku of West Bromwich Albion, Kevin Mirallas of Everton and Eden Hazard of Chelsea.
One man who has seen the Belgians operate in England and been very impressed is Scotland midfielder James McArthur. Already this season, McArthur has featured in the Wigan Athletic side against Chelsea and Everton for whom Hazard and Mirallas respectively starred.
“They have top-class players all the way through their squad and we’ll need to watch out for them,” said McArthur. “They have got a strong, strong squad and they are looking to the future, but we have a strong squad ourselves and we’ll be looking to get all three points.
“They have so many attacking options – they have Lukaku, Mirallas, and Hazard, who are top-class players, but we will be trying to put our stamp on the game. We’ll have to try and get the ball down and make it hard for them to play.
“Hazard in particular is a top player, and he played very well on the day against us. He is one that we need to watch and we know that, but we have players who can try and stop him and turn him the other way which he won’t like.”
Now in his third season at Wigan after his move from Hamilton in July 2010, McArthur turned 25 last week and it was almost a birthday present to see his name in Levein’s squad bracketed in midfield with the returning Darren Fletcher and Scott Brown. “The two of them are fantastic players, and it’s great to be mentioned alongside names like theirs,” said McArthur. “I want to play, I want to push for a start in the team. I know we’ve got strong midfielders but I’m here to make it hard for the manager to leave me out.”
He has certainly made it difficult for Wigan manager Roberto Martinez to omit him, having made his big breakthrough into the Wigan team last season in which he played 31 matches and was a key figure in their battle against relegation. His reward was a contract extended to 2016, and the continuing support of Martinez.
“The manager has shown great faith in me,” said McArthur, “even though I didn’t do much pre-season, and for him to throw me into the first game was a kind of shock, but it does show how much faith he has in me. You need to become a better player all round when you’re down there. You need to become fitter and have sharper awareness on and off the ball. It took a wee bit of time to adapt but now I’m enjoying playing every week.
“My game has improved tenfold from what I was at Hamilton. Coming down to the Premier League, the manager and assistant manager have developed me as a player and given me the opportunity in games to try and gain more experience.” The reason why McArthur’s pre-season training was disrupted was a back injury that required a rather unusual treatment – sugar.
He had been struggling to regain full fitness after the back injury but wants to assure the Tartan Army that he is fully fit and raring to go against Belgium if selected.
He said: “I was a bit worried through pre-season about getting my place back in the team but now I’m playing week in, week out, and loving it. It’s been tougher than I expected, but my back is totally fine now, and the last international break helped me so much.
“It was a spasm and I got a course of treatment of three sugar injections which strengthen the ligaments and tendons – a lot of players are getting them now. I probably wasn’t close to playing in the last international double header because if I had played I would have been struggling and I would have just kept going until I broke down.
“I didn’t actually miss any games [for Wigan], and I wasn’t training but the physio has worked me hard and I feel fit again. In games I felt really tired and was making bad decisions but now I’m getting stronger and feeling better and I have good platform to build on.”
McArthur is part of a Scots colony at Wigan which includes Gary Caldwell and Shaun Maloney, who both featured against Wales. “Shaun has been in good form and last Saturday he set up the goal again,” said McArthur. “He’s playing really well and working really hard. He’s a credit to himself as he works so hard on and off the field and hopefully he will get some time and stay in the Scotland side.”
In future, we should also look out for Fraser Fyvie, the 19-year-old who signed for Wigan from Aberdeen in the summer. McArthur said: “Fyvie is similar to myself and James McCarthy and Shaun. When you first go down it takes you that wee while to learn and become a better player and adapt. The manager is very loyal to the players that have done it for him, so it’s hard to get in at the moment, but Fraser’s working hard in training and playing in reserve games, while being called into the Scotland under-21 squad is really good for him. I’m sure he will work hard and get his chance.”