Leander Dendoncker: The man who revitalised Wolves' campaign
By James Wynn
Until December, Leander Dendoncker had not featured in a Premier League game in an old gold shirt and only made the bench in the last weekend of October.
In the month previous, there were rumours he had not settled in England, had fallen out with his manager, he was left out of the Belgium squad and also that the £12m agreed fee to bring him to Molineux in the summer would be declared null and void. However, Dendoncker’s fortune swung dramatically, making his first Premier League appearance in the win over Chelsea on December 5th, and his first start at Wembley in the win over Tottenham on December 29th. It is no coincidence that since then, Wolves have found their most consistent run of form this season.
Dendoncker has started every Premier League game since January 14th and has only missed the FA Cup 4th round replay against Shrewsbury in this time. In the games Dendoncker has started, Wolves have only lost twice, against Huddersfield in February, and the rather excusable defeat at the Etihad in January, when Wolves had ten men for 70 minutes. As well as this, in the last international break, Dendoncker played 90 minutes for his country twice, featuring alongside new Leicester signing Youri Tielemans in a midfield two in wins against Russia and Cyprus. However, it is in Wolves’ new style where he has excelled.
In the game against Chelsea in December, Nuno ditched his trusted 3-4-3 formation and started with a midfield three and front two for the first time, in the process ending Wolves’ six-game winless run. Since then, the 3-5-2 has developed into a system similar to that of England in last summer’s World Cup. Dendoncker has been instrumental in that, as a typical ‘box-to-box midfielder’ that is instrumental in most teams. Dendoncker’s arrival into the side and the tactical shift has completely revitalised Wolves’ season and has allowed two of Wolves’ key players to drastically improve their form, along with the impact of the Belgian.
Firstly, before that game against Chelsea, Diogo Jota had struggled to find his feet at the top level. He hadn’t scored a goal since April 21st and had looked far from himself out on the left-hand side, having to settle for a place on the bench from October to December. Since, Jota has scored seven goals, including a match-winning hat trick against Leicester, and the goal to send Wolves to Wembley against Manchester United. His recent form also earned him his first call up to the Portugal senior team last week. Dendoncker’s arrival as a third midfielder has freed up Jota to play as a second striker, boosting his confidence, and has gone from a dodgy start to the season to a key player in the side.
As well as this, Ruben Neves has been dropped deeper to include Dendoncker’s box-to-box ability. Neves now plays as the anchor in midfield, which, like Jota, has improved his form no end. Typically, when Wolves went through a bad patch in the autumn, the midfield pairing of Moutinho and Neves got overrun, most notably leading to the embarrassing 2-0 home defeat to Huddersfield. Since the change, not only have Wolves had more midfield presence and rarely lose the midfield battle nowadays, but Neves’ deeper position enables him to spray long passes at will, leading to some memorable goals, most notably two of Jota’s hat trick against Leicester. Of course, Neves is one of Wolves’ most important players, and his range of passing has given Wolves a solid Plan B. I doubt this would have been achievable had Dendoncker not been introduced.
In short, Dendoncker’s influence upon this team cannot be underestimated, and there are many things that reflect this. Wolves have lost four games since the tactical shift in early December, and only two games when Dendoncker has been playing. The new formation has freed up key players to express themselves, and now Wolves even look like beating bottom half teams, as seen by the comprehensive victory over Cardiff earlier this month. The £12m fee that was being disputed just four months ago now looks like a bargain, and he has surely cemented a guaranteed start in his club and national team for years to come.
James Wynn is a Talking Wolves blogger and sports writer. You can follow him on Twitter here