He’s 22. Was rated highly in his youth as a centre-half, but now is making a name in midfield. And he’s on the radar of Manchester United. But no, we’re not talking here about Eric Dier…
No wonder the England international is worried. By all accounts United mad Dier is doing all he can to convince Tottenham to open the door to negotiations. But Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman, is having none of it. And concerning for Dier is this week’s news that United have moved on. They’ve found another version of him. Same age. Same background. But not English. Belgian…
Hermann Van Holsbeeck, the club’s big talking GM, conceded this week that pressure from suitors was intensifying.
“The difficulty with Leander is that the boy has passed several stages in just six months and especially on the European scene,” he said. “He proved he had European quality against Manchester United and is now on the shelves of all the major European clubs.”
Among those teams is indeed United, as manager Jose Mourinho seeks a long-term solution to his defensive midfield problems. Dier was the one he fancied, but with Levy proving as obstinate as ever, the search has led to Belgium and Dendoncker. That the lad shone in his audition over the two legs of last season’s Europa League tie didn’t go amiss.
“It’s a great club but I still do not know anything, I will talk to my agent and then we will see,” Dendoncker enthused when United’s interest was first given an airing in Belgium back in April.
“My agent”, as Dendoncker mentions, is Christophe Henrotay, who does admit a move – even at the €40m valuation of Anderlecht – is likely.
“I find the price very good, it means that they value him very much, but that does not mean that it is his true value on the market,” says Henrotay.
“Leander wasn’t so well known, but the two games against Manchester United have taken his value to a new level. There is a buzz around him.
“He is really a machine, who could be useful anywhere and in different positions.”
Which is exactly why Mourinho will have scouts posted for Friday’s game.
As he was coming through the system at Anderlecht, it was at centre-half where Dendoncker was building a reputation. His no-nonsense approach to defending, coupled with an impressive passing range, had Belgium youth coaches likening him to Rode Duivels captain Kompany.
Jean-François Remy, who remains part of Belgium’s U21 coaching staff, worked with Dendoncker as a 19 year-old when he was called into the squad as a centre-half.
“He’ll have to eat a few more sandwiches before he looks like Kompany,” Remy said at the time. “But he’s certainly an extremely good prospect for the future.”
Marc Wilmots, then Belgium coach, also stated: “He’s certainly an interesting player. Someone who is developing at a consistent level.”
That was just before the World Cup. Three years on and the son of a farming family is aiming to be Roberto Martinez’s first-choice in midfield for next summer’s Russia campaign. His bullet-proof physique only adding to his reputation: he did not miss a minute of Jupiler Pro League or Europa League action last season, playing a total of 57 games.
“For me he has made the most progress of all the young Belgian players. I’ve been following him for a while and especially in Europe his performances were impressive,” declared Belgium coach Martinez.
“Leander has a great mentality and we can use him as a central defender and central midfielder. That multi-choice is a plus. Leander has made huge development this season, many teams will be interested, he has a strong character and almost no weaknesses.”
Anderlecht great Paul Van Himst agrees with Martinez’s assessment, though warns Dendoncker that there’s still some edges of his midfield game that need to be polished.
“Leander is made for a position: that of defensive midfielder. But sometimes he wants to do everything at the same time. He runs to the right and to the left whereas in this position, one must have a little discipline,” says the 81-capped former Belgium striker.
“But he will make his way abroad. Not to an average team of a great championship, though. He can aim for much higher.”
Dendoncker is well aware of his growing reputation and hopes if United firm up their interest, Van Holsbeeck and Anderlecht won’t stand in his way.
“I understand his position, but he must understand mine: this is my career, although I know that Anderlecht wants to keep me. Right now, I’m thinking about my career and my future.”