Manchester United target Leander Dendoncker impressing at Anderlecht
Just under a year ago, it was reported that Manchester United scouts were monitoring Anderlecht's Leander Dendoncker. On Thursday, United will have a chance to see the midfielder again much closer when they visit Brussels for the first leg of the Europa League quarterfinals.
It is likely that Jose Mourinho will be impressed with what he sees. The 19-year-old Youri Tielemans had been the most talked about young player at Anderlecht for a while, but his partner in central midfield arguably possesses even more potential.
Under the guidance of Swiss coach Rene Weiler, Dendoncker has become the team's most important player. He hasn't missed a single minute -- all 32 Belgian league matches and 12 Europa League fixtures -- and is capable of non-stop running, at times covering 13 kilometres per 90 minutes. But not only does Dendoncker win the ball back, he is also capable of quality distribution, which puts him at the heart of most of Anderlecht moves.
"Leander can clear the ball from his penalty area, and a few moments later you see him in the opponents' box," Voetbalkrant journalist Johan Walckiers tells ESPN FC. "His physical strength is remarkable, and he has put on a lot of muscle during the last year. He is intelligent, almost never loses the ball, and his decision making is improving all the time."
Gradually, the 21-year-old is becoming a true leader, making himself heard when needed. There has been significant progress in this respect too, because that hadn't always been the case.
Growing up on a farm in the West Flanders village of Passendale, which is mainly known for its cheese festivals, Dendoncker was a very quiet boy -- the opposite of his older brother Andres and younger brother Lars, himself a defensive midfielder who is part of the Club Brugge academy nowadays.
"Leander was extremely shy, and only flourished with the ball. The problem was that he didn't say much," his father Dirk told Sportmagazine.
For a young man very close to his parents, moving to the big city at the age of 14 was a huge gamble. However, Dirk and his wife Katrien believed that their son was capable of great things, and an offer from Anderlecht was simply too good to refuse. Not everyone at the academy was immediately convinced, and Under-15 coach Yannick Ferrera even considered discarding the midfielder, but Dendoncker eventually proved himself to be an exemplary professional.
During his first years at Anderlecht, Dendoncker spent a lot of time at the house of Wanda and Paul Steegen, parents of the club's press officer David Steegen. The couple are famous for providing a home for youngsters throughout the years -- some of whom even became international stars, notably Anthony Vanden Borre and Dennis Praet.
Dendoncker, whose acclimatisation to life in a new city was most certainly helped by the Steegens' care, could yet become the best of them all but he needed to be mentally strong after some early setbacks following his promotion to Anderlecht's first-team at the age of 19.
He made his Champions League debut late in the game against Galatasaray in September 2014 with the Belgians leading 1-0, before Burak Yilmaz scored an equaliser in injury time; a month later, Dendoncker was sent on with just two minutes remaining against Arsenal with Anderlecht in the lead again, but Kieran Gibbs and Lukas Podolski scored twice in the dying seconds to win the game for the Gunners.
The midfielder clearly wasn't the luckiest of substitutes, and some pundits questioned Besnik Hasi's decision to use such an inexperienced player at such a crucial time, but the manager didn't listen to them and the third match proved to be decisive. This time, Anderlecht were 2-0 behind at the Emirates when Dendoncker replaced Chancel Mbemba after 54 minutes. Arsenal soon added a third goal, but the Belgians came back to draw 3-3, with the new prodigy starring calmly at the back.
Dendoncker played in defence that night, showing his remarkable versatility. Tall and imposing, he is at ease as a centre-back thanks to his superb anticipation and reading of the game. He can even fill in as a full-back when needed, but his preferred position definitely is in midfield, where he can roam free and make full use of his incredible stamina.
His progress has been remarkable ever since. Dendoncker became an undisputed starter two years ago, improved his game last season, and this term has flourished into one of the very best players in the league. His magnificent performances haven't gone unnoticed by the Belgium national team coach Roberto Martinez either.
"Leander is disciplined, calm on the ball, and has technical and physical qualities," the Spaniard said. "Whether he is a midfielder or a defender, he can play both positions. He is a great guy and his answer is always: 'I play wherever you need me.'"
Belgium might have a wealth of attacking talent, but the situation is a bit more complicated as far as holding midfielders are concerned. Axel Witsel's performances haven't always been positive, while even Marouane Fellaini still features frequently. Dendoncker could solve that problem in the near future, and it remains to be seen whether he will replace Fellaini at Old Trafford this summer too.
Proving his worth in the upcoming Europa League fixtures against Manchester United won't hurt his chances but even if he doesn't do enough to impress Mourinho, the future looks bright for one of Belgium's top young talents.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin