Wolves have exceeded expectations and have performed with a swagger that established veterans of the Premier League such as Everton and West Ham would come to expect. After storming to the Championship title last season, Wolves invested heavily in the summer with a number of Portuguese imports arriving thanks to the tight-knit relationship between Jorge Mendes and the club. You would be forgiven if you thought they would struggle as Fulham have shown this season but Wolves are navigating themselves towards European qualification and obliterating the main objective of ensuring safety.
Wolverhampton Wanderers ended the summer with 11 new signings, one of which was midfielder Leander Dendoncker. The Belgian international has been widely tipped to join a Champions League club for several seasons. He was also close to joining a Premier League rival when a deadline day move to West Ham was mooted in the 2018 January transfer window.
The move ultimately failed to materialise, but West Ham’s loss was Wolves’ gain. A move to Molineux came late in the summer as the midfielder arrived on an initial loan deal with an obligation to buy next summer for £12m. A bargain in the current market climate, Dendoncker’s move is a testament to Wolves’ rise into the Premier League and their European ambitions for the immediate and long term future of the club.
At 23 years old, Dendoncker is yet to fulfill his true potential. He has shown enough promise for Wolves to take a gamble on the Belgian and transform him into a world class player. A natural defensive midfielder, he is equally adept at centre-back and possesses an incredible ability to play out from the back. Composed on the ball, his control is a joy to watch as he glides through the midfield and breaks opposition lines with his wide range of passing. The versatile midfielder has an incredible work-rate and strength making him a physical presence in both boxes.
In this analysis, we will examine the strengths and qualities Leander Dendoncker brings to this Wolves team and how he combines defensive solidarity and creative playmaking ability.
Leander Dendoncker: Midfield lynchpin
Leander Dendoncker has dominated midfields since his emergence through the Anderlecht academy with his sturdy frame and physicality. The midfielder possesses incredible stamina and is able to churn out consistent performances for 90 minutes. Take the 2016/17 season, where he played all 40 league games and a total of 57 in all competitions.
He isn’t blessed with speed, but relies on excellent positioning and adept tackling to win back possession. He quietly goes about his job whilst allowing others to flourish around him giving the team a defensive base.
In recent weeks Dendoncker’s influence has been vital in keeping Wolves unbeaten in their last six since their 3-0 loss to Manchester City. He occupies the half-spaces, winning tackles to contribute effectively to Wolves’ tactical ethos. This commitment supports the wing-backs by allowing them to cause damage going forward.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s side is exceptional at positioning. They employ a 3-5-2 formation making the midfield and defence’s positioning extremely important. The full-backs tend to join the forwards, leaving the two defensive midfielders to form part of the defensive unit. Our resident Wolves expert Jake Flock has essentially defined their style of play in this way across numerous analyses on here and in the Total Football Analysis magazine over the course of the current season.
Nuno instructs his three central midfielders differently for attacking and defensive situations. In attack, the wings-backs push up leaving the three in the middle to screen the centre-backs and provide cover for their wing-back. Defensively, he uses them to apply pressure high up the pitch, something which Dendoncker in particular is accustomed to from his time at Anderlecht. His aggressive style of play and pressing makes him an ideal candidate for this task.
The example above typifies his willingness to win back possession as Gent looked to play out from the back. As the ball is passed into midfield Dendoncker immediately presses the ball receiver and gives Anderlecht a counter-attacking opportunity.
Against Liverpool in the FA Cup Wolves did exactly what I’ve explained earlier. The back five remained compact and Dendoncker attempts to close down the Liverpool midfielders forcing them away from goal. The tall Belgian is disciplined and that ideology is what Nuno demands of his players.
Against the top six sides, Wolves are more disciplined than against their equals where they can be more expansive. Their run in the FA Cup ended against Bristol City but they will look to make more of an impact next season.
This heat map highlights the area where the Belgian usually operates. Notably, he rarely crosses the half-way point. This can be attributed to Wolves’ style of play of using the double pivot to anchor midfield and screen the back four.
He possesses aggression in his play yet remains defensively composed. During his spell at Anderlecht, he encountered many a situation as evidenced below. Genk start playing out from the back as Anderlecht look to try and press them high up the pitch. As the ball is played into midfield, Dendoncker predicts the ball’s trajectory and intercepts the pass and initiates a quick counter-attack.
Certain Premier League players have exceptional defensive skills but lack the passing ability to be able to dictate play and make measured passes. However, Leader Dendoncker possesses a keen eye to pick a pass from deep. Being able to build out from the back is an area most teams are trying to develop and master but having an adept deep-lying passer and ball carrier is a necessity.
You may notice most successful top teams have a pair of world-class individuals for the defensive midfield and centre-back positions. Jorginho and David Luiz for Chelsea, Fernandinho and John Stones for Manchester City and Clement Lenglet and Sergio Busquets for Barcelona are all such examples. Their provide their respective teams with a combination of deep players who possess incredible vision, passing and turn defensive situations into potential counter-attacks.
Leander Dendoncker (#32) is the full package and fulfills both roles adequately. Having the versatility to play both in central defence and defensive midfield makes him a valuable asset to Nuno and Wolves given their tactical versatility. Additionally, he can be deployed as a half-back allowing him to drop in between the three centre-backs to create a back six under moments of extreme pressure and added defensive solidarity. His accurate passing ability allows Wolves to play direct football and put the wing-backs through, bypassing the midfield to catch the opposition off guard when they expect the ball to be played centrally.
Against Standard Liege, Dendoncker was played at centre-back and he displayed an incredible passing ability when Anderlecht looked to build out from the back. Standard Liege are set up in a well organised 4-4-2 formation but Dendoncker is able to pick out a teammate with an accurate long ball that breaks through the opposition’s defensive line and allows Anderlecht to create a goal scoring opportunity.
To Europe and beyond
The big Belgian is well placed to guide Wolves through a European campaign if they qualify next season. Alongside him lies the crafty and experienced Portuguese duo of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho who both moved to the Black Country along with Dendoncker. The Belgian can become one of the world’s leading defensive midfielders with an array of talents that are much sought after.
Surprisingly, his departure to Wolverhampton Wanderers was not contested by the elite clubs considering he had been courted by clubs in England and Italy. Having not started a league game until the 29 December 2018 against Tottenham Hotspur, the Belgian midfielder was linked with a move away to AS Roma. Having started Wolves’ last five Premier League games though, Dendoncker looks set to stay in the Black Country and establish himself as a top class midfielder. It looks increasingly likely that Wolves will relish his permanent arrival.
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