They just keep on coming. Watford’s transfer dealings may be getting wrapped up much earlier than they did last year, but ins and outs have still continued into the first week of the new season. The latest new recruit is Algerian centre half Essaid Belkalem. Let’s have a look.
Belkalem was born on New Year’s Day 1989 in Mekla, a small Algerian commune in the hills of the Kabylie region, just east of Algiers. He joined the youth team of JS Kabylie, based in the region’s capital of Tizi Ouzou (literally ‘The Hill of Brooms’) and progressed to the senior side in 2008, at the age of 19.
JS Kabylie are historically the biggest club in Algeria – their 14 Algerian National Championships is twice as many as their nearest rival, MC Alger (understandable given their moonlighting in the nightclubs of Algiers). However, they haven’t won since the 07/08 season, the year before our man made the jump to senior football, and last year placed all the way down in seventh place, five positions and 14 points off Champions League qualification.
Online records of Algerian football are a bit sketchy, so we won’t give you precise domestic appearance figures, but it seems that Belkalem went straight into the side as a regular. In his first year, Kabylie recovered from “a terrible start to the season” to finish second. They fell to third in his sophomore, before falling off a cliff and placing 11th in the 16 team division in 2010/11. For the last two years, they have finished 9th and 7th. The club have struggled to come to terms with their newfound status as mid-table also-rans, changing managers a ridiculous eleven times since November 2009.
Though Kabylie is an Algerian giant that seems to have fallen down the beanstalk, Bekalem’s performances at the heart of their defence earned him his first international call-up in September 2012 in the qualification for the 2013 African Cup of Nations. The match was a heated affair, and after Algeria grabbed a late winner, it all kicked off.
Since then, Belkalem has been pretty much ever-present in the Algeria back line, racking up eleven caps in less than a year. It was perhaps this emergence on the international stage that convinced him to give up the turbulent surrounds of Kabylie. In February he announced that he would not be signing a new contract with the club, and would be seeking a move to Europe.
After playing the field, including entering extensive talks with Lyon, the defender signed for Udinese on a five year deal in June (where have we heard that before?). Did Belkalem know when committing himself to our Italian brothers that he’d be shipped out to England within a matter of weeks? If so why would he have done so, when there were clearly a number of sizable European sides bidding for his signature? Throughout the summer he was being talked about as the natural successor to Mehdi Benatia, the centre back who left last month for Roma, and now he’s in the second tier of English football.
Regardless, he’s here now and here he is doing some defending in that his debut against international powerhouse Libya. From the video his ease on the ball is evident; he’s not afraid to take an extra touch and keeps his composure even when sold short by his teammates. The other thing you notice watching him is his size. Though he’s not got the Shittu-esque build that some Watford prognosticators have attributed to him, he’s certainly a sizable lad (Wikipedia has him at 6ft 4) and seems capable of overpowering attackers in aerial duels with relative ease.
Size was one of our main shortcomings last season. Not only did it mean that we were susceptible to conceding at set pieces, it also meant we didn’t carry any particular threat of our own. This seems to have been noted by the transfer men, and in Belkalem and Angella, we’ve acquired some pretty lofty defenders while not sacrificing any ability to move the ball on the floor.
It may be a while before we see the two-footed defender in action. The Udinese staff were reportedly unhappy that Belkalem decided to represent Algeria at this summer’s Military World Cup in Baku after a long season with Kabylie. The Algerians were only knocked out on July 10th, so he is significantly behind on his off-season progression.
Belkalem is thought to have the ability to play in the Premier League immediately, but having only ever played football in the Algerian league, top flight football may be too big of a jump for the 24 year old. Perhaps that is why, faced with a strict quota on non-EU players at Udinese, the Pozzos decided to send him to us rather than Granada. Here he’ll be able to play himself into European football and, with everything going to plan, will have his opportunity in a top division in the next couple of years.
He seems a nice bloke, too.