Youri Tielemans always trained well at Leicester City.
His gaze may eventually have turned towards the allure of the top six as his contract ticked down, but he remained a diligent worker to the end. He turned up early in the morning and headed for the gym before the team convened for training. Tielemans put the hard yards in, even if they became increasingly difficult to run.
Within footballing circles, there was a growing consensus that Tielemans’ athleticism — or lack thereof — might stifle his progression. The type of clubs the Belgium international was seeking to join were only ever tentative in their interest, despite his winning strike in the 2021 FA Cup final as he entered the final two years of his contract.
Interest from the elite never firmed up given, with them, he would likely be a squad player rotated in and out of the team at a time when he needed regular minutes to thrive. Building match rhythm and maintaining fitness were fundamental in masking his athletic deficiencies.
Instead, he became tangled up in Leicester’s growing dysfunction. Tielemans had to cover more space and put out more fires as the team began to struggle. The quality of his possession, previously so conducive in a well-oiled 4-3-3 alongside Wilfred Ndidi and James Maddison in midfield, began to fade.
Brendan Rodgers started to regard Tielemans as a player not always able to match up physically in midfield. He was often slow in tracking runners and did not have the mobility to press effectively, irrespective of his endeavour.
Towards the end of their time together, Rodgers moved Tielemans deeper, essentially asking him to operate as a quarterback, receiving the ball with the game in front of him. He still needed a minder in Ndidi at his side, admittedly, but the thinking was that Tielemans could cover less space while still influencing Leicester by generating attacks through his impressive ball progression.
The UEFA Conference League semi-finals against Roma in May 2022, however, laid bare his shortcomings.
Lorenzo Pellegrini shadowed Tielemans when Leicester had possession, stopping him from picking up the ball from deep and denying him time to make line-breaking passes. Pellegrini would then run past him on transition. Tielemans, demonstrably toiling, found his technical and physical blindspots exposed.
Even if his time at Leicester fizzled out, Aston Villa hoped to reinvigorate the Belgian. This was a deal that worked for both player and club — he signed as a free agent with a lucrative signing-on fee and augmented Unai Emery’s pool of central midfielders.
Yet Villa’s head coach, drawing parallels to Rodgers’ later attempts, has yet to fit the Tielemans cog into his machine. It has reached the point, heard at Villa Park on Thursday night, where he has become the lightning rod for the crowd’s frustrations. Featuring in a rotated side underperforming in midweek has not helped, but so dominant has the first-choice Boubacar Kamara and Douglas Luiz axis proved — combined with his own lack of positive impression — that cup competitions are the only opportunities Tielemans has to play.
The 26-year-old is not alone on the periphery. Villa have other accomplished senior internationals on considerable salaries who are being starved of regular game time and rhythm. But he has yet to start a Premier League game for his new club, even if he has been introduced in all seven of the team’s fixtures to date. He has played just 212 minutes.
Emery initially tried to fit Tielemans into the left-sided No 10 role in the absence of Jacob Ramsey, but that advanced position requires a level of athleticism he lacks. Tielemans prefers to play deeper and not between the lines, where he is required to receive, be dynamic and accelerate quickly. And in a highly effective transitional team — Villa’s 47 shots from fast breaks are the most in the Premier League — he has laboured.
HSK Zrinjski players had ambled around Birmingham’s Chinatown after 9pm on Wednesday night, enjoying the gentle and welcoming atmosphere that would be a stark contrast to that which awaited at Villa Park on matchday.
The desperation for three points was all-consuming; the frenzy whipped up from the stands.
Tielemans started in his favoured role alongside Leander Dendoncker, another searching for form and fitness. Tielemans was metronomic, if not wholly incisive in the first half, making the second-highest number of passes of any player (53) while clearly being inhibited by his own lack of sharpness and confidence.
The composure that once marked him out is far less well-defined at present. The unforced errors — stray passes that were easily intercepted or heavy touches — are a by-product of his difficulty in adjusting.
Leon Bailey prepared to take a corner as Villa attacked the Holte End in the second half. The Belgian, who can not be accused of hiding, sprinted closer, offering a short passing option. In his eagerness, Tielemans was unable to slow his feet down and fell over the ball. He was left on all fours as Zrinjski countered — a slip symptomatic of a player not overly comfortable in his surroundings.
Then, with two minutes of normal time left, Tielemans passed square and Zrinjski attempted to counter. The danger proved fleeting, but the groans were telling.
Luiz partnered Tielemans after the break and as Villa pushed, shooting on sight in their desperation to break the deadlock, the higher he played. By the end, Villa had seven outfield players stationed in the final third.
Tielemans, though, could not unpick the lock, even if he might have had an assist on a different day with Diego Carlos heading wide and then bullet straight at the goalkeeper on consecutive occasions.
A fixture fraught with frustration was ultimately lanced by John McGinn deep into additional time and the relief, etched on supporters and Tielemans, was palpable. He smiled and waved to familiar faces in the crowd. Nonetheless, having been substituted in the Carabao Cup defeat to Everton the week before, this was another evening that had largely passed him by.
“We have to play, winning and losing, with the players in our squad,” said Emery afterwards. “Not (just) Youri Tielemans, but everybody. We have to share (minutes) because we are going to face Europe and the Premier League. We have to try to get our level playing with different players. We can build a team by giving everybody the opportunity to play.”
Emery’s rotation will afford more time and chances to Tielemans, but rediscovering his strengths will be essential if the midfielder is to settle.
(Top photo: Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images)