Beyond The Top 5: Royale USG the newly-promoted team causing a Leicester-esque upset in the Belgian Pro League (Part 2)

'Beyond the Top 5' is a series that will look to beam the light on some of Europe's lesser-fancied leagues, taking in storylines and insightful analysis.

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise are marching towards the league title without spending on transfers

Just like part one, part two continues to examine Royale Union Saint-Gilloise's rapid rise but with a focus on their unique transfer policy which has yielded wildly successful results.

A good example of this is 25-year old German striker Deniz Undav, who was signed on a free transfer from SV Meppen in the German third division where he scored 17 goals in 34 appearances.

Undav repeated the trick in his debut season for USG with 17 goals in 26 games to aid their promotion push and has been on fire this season as well. In his first-ever season of top-flight football, the German striker has scored 18 goals, making him the joint-top scorer in the league so far. His performances have earned him a deadline day transfer to Brighton in which he was loaned back to USG to finish this incredible season.

Undav’s strike partner, Dante Vanzeir has an even more meteoric rise which has seen him become a Belgium international less than two years after he was clubless.

Vanzeir was a youngster struggling for playing time at Genk around the same time Felice Mazzu was in charge. But after multiple loan spells and only nine first-team appearances in three years for Genk, Vanzeir’s contract expired in 2020 and thanks to his familiarity with Mazzu, he was snapped up on a free transfer by Union that summer.

Vanzeir repaid the faith with 21 goals and nine assists in 27 games across all competitions in his first season while USG were still a second-tier team. Now in the Belgian Pro League, Vanzier has not slowed down at all with 13 goals and eight assists in 25 top-flight games.

The versatile striker who also plays as a right-winger made his previously inconceivable Belgium national team debut against Wales, and is the club’s prize jewel with two years still left on his contract.

English centre-back Christian Burgess is another pertinent example of USG recognising and capitalising on opportunities. Burgess was outstanding in the 2019/20 season and was named Portsmouth Player of the season for his efforts in League One.

His five-year contract with Pompey expired after that season and Burgess declined a contract extension in hopes of attracting suitors at a higher level but English Championship clubs failed to pay him attention.

Union did though and after some initial doubts, Burgess got over it by convincing himself that the Belgian Second Division is better than the English third tier. Burgess fit in seamlessly and is now a key player for the team as they mount an unlikely title charge and potentially could be playing in the Champions League next season.

Tony Bloom has used his position as the owner of both clubs to form a good transfer relationship between Union and Brighton. USG have had at least one Brighton player on loan in each of the four years of Bloom and Muzio’s ownership.

The most impressive part is that Union Saint-Gilloise have only spent just over €2 million in transfer fees in four years since Bloom and Muzio bought the club.

The recent €1.1 million signing of Spanish central midfielder Cameron Puertas from Swiss club Lausanne on January 22, 2022 was the first time USG paid a transfer fee for any player since January 2020 when they paid €300,000 to Danish club Randers for the signature of centre-back Denis Bager.

In fact, USG have only paid a transfer fee six times under the ownership of Bloom and Muzio, which is incredible because they have brought in over 50 new players in that time, taking full advantage of free transfers and loan deals.

Royale Union Saint-Gilloise currently sit nine points clear at the top of the Belgian Jupiler Pro League with just nine regular-season games left to play.

It is worth noting that a first-place finish at the end of 34 regular season does not guarantee them the title, it only qualifies them for the championship play-offs in which they will play twice each against the other top four teams.

The point system in the championship playoff is the same as during the regular season, except that each team starts with half of the points they won in the regular season, rounded up to the nearest integer. The points gained by rounding are deducted in the case of a tie.

The top four teams from the regular season enter the championship playoff, with the first-placed team winning the championship of Belgium. Each team plays their opponents twice, and the teams are ranked by points, points from rounding, wins, etc. as in the regular season.

The other teams in the top four right now are Club Brugge, Royal Antwerp and Anderlecht. This means Royale USG are still favourite as it stands as they have proven in the regular season that they can hold their own against any of these three teams.

Union have defeated Anderlecht home and away this season, lost one and drawn the other against Club Brugge and also lost to Royal Antwerp with the return fixture set to be played on February 5, 2022.

Royale USG are currently on a 10-game unbeaten run and remain on course for a first Belgian First Division title in 87 years in their first top-flight season in 48.

It would be one of the biggest miracles in football history, an underdog story to rival and perhaps even surpass what Leicester City did in 2016 when the Foxes won the Premier League the second season after getting promoted.

If Royale Union Saint-Gilloise does finish the good work they have started, it will be the first time a newly-promoted team has won the league title in any of Europe’s top 20 leagues since Kaiserslautern shocked the world by winning the German Bundesliga in 1998.

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