Matteo Darmian was left a crumpled heap. Sergio Romero left grounded, beaten by the sheer ferocity of the header. Leander Dendoncker didn’t wait to survey the wreckage, he was already sprinting to the corner in celebration.
The moment his towering, bullet header hit the back of Romero’s net in Anderlecht’s Europa League round of 16, first-leg tie against Manchester United last season, the Belgian went from relative obscurity to burgeoning European talent.
Aside from his thumping equaliser as time ticked down, the versatile Belgian midfielder impressed against the Red Devils in arguably the highest-profile fixture of his career to date.
Before the game, all of the attention was focussed, with good reason, on wonderkid playmaker Your Tielemans, who subsequently joined Monaco in a €25million deal, yet it was his midfield partner who truly caught the eye.
With a remit of protecting the defence and conducting play from deep, Dendoncker did a sterling job of containing United for much of the game – which finished 1-1 thanks to his last-gasp equaliser – showing a fine range of passing off either foot, an ability to drive his side forward, and an intelligence of positioning and decision making.
He again impressed in the return fixture, although it wasn’t enough to stop the Red Devils progressing at Anderlecht’s expense.
It was his performances against United that put him on the map in a wider continental sense, but anyone who watches Belgian football on a semi-regular basis will have been well aware of Dendoncker’s gifts and potential.
Still only 22, Dendoncker has been a regular in the Anderlecht first team for four seasons now, and has been capped twice at international level – no mean feat considering the depth of talent Belgium boast, particularly in midfield.
The 6ft 2ins midfield general has been with Anderlecht since his early teens and has been carefully groomed to assume a prominent role within the starting XI.
He left his hometown village of Passendale in the West Flanders region to move to the Brussels club at the age of 14, staying with the parents of the club’s press officer.
He debuted for the senior side at 19 and, despite some shaky form early on, has been a fixture at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium ever since.
Although Tielemans was the golden boy of the Anderlecht academy and seen as a future world star upon his promotion to the first team, with the now-20-year-old Monaco man drawing most of the attention from media and scouts, it could be argued that Dendoncker became even more crucial to the Belgians’ midfield, and will be more sorely missed upon his eventual inevitable departure.
That is likely to come sooner rather than later. Manchester City and United have both been linked with moves for the young Belgian in the past, but it is West Ham United who now look likely to make the first official move.
According to reports, David Moyes‘ assistant Stuart Pearce travelled to Belgium on Sunday night to watch Dendoncker in action against Genk ahead of a potential bid. He played at centre-back – a position he has often been used in this term – but would likely fill his natural role in midfield if he made the switch to the London Stadium.
But what would be offer the Hammers? As defensive midfielder, Dendoncker adds balance to the side. But he is so much more than a mere destroyer.
His passing is impressively progressive, always looking to play the ball forward where possible, and his ability to switch play with either foot, pinging 40-yard balls out to the flanks with ease, is a real asset.
It all comes down to his remarkable ability to identify space on the pitch. Almost without fail, Dendoncker seems to instantly locate the team-mate with the most open acreage around him, picking them out swiftly and precisely, enabling a fluency of attack.
For a player whose primary responsibility is containment, Dendoncker also has a thirst for breaking forward to join the attack. This could be framed as a negative trait for a defensive midfielder, but the 22-year-old has perfected the art of judging his surroundings, analysing the potential threat in behind himself and the cover available to him before setting off on a forward charge.
His record of five goals in 40 Belgian First Division A games last season shows that Dendoncker is more than just a midfield water carrier, while his supreme fitness and engine – which often sees him cover more than 13 kilometres in any one game – coupled with his technical skills, could see him thrive in a box-to-box role.
Or, with his intelligence, metronomic passing and astute vision, he could develop into one of Europe’s foremost deep-lying playmakers in a mould similar to Sergio Busquets.
Anderlecht president Roger Vanden Stock slapped a €38million price tag on his prized midfielder in the summer, and Dendoncker himself is ready for the next step should a top-level club come knocking.
Speaking of the rumours linking him Manchester United last August, he said: “If it was as concrete as was being said, if they wanted me at all costs, I’d already be there. When you play for Anderlecht and you have the chance to go there, you don’t hesitate, but Anderlecht had their bit to say. Everyone had to agree.”
That figure has been revised by the club’s general manager, Herman van Holsbeeck, earlier this month, admitting: “A transfer for €25-€30m is possible, but then we also need a replacement right away.”
If and when he does leave Anderlecht, he could be a real steal for a top side. And considering his age, current level of performance and malleability, whatever role he is deployed in, Dendoncker looks set to become one of Europe’s best.