Leander Dendoncker has had to be patient. The Belgian midfielder, having joined Wolves in the summer from Anderlecht, did not start a Premier League game until late December.
Prior to his first start, which came in a 3-1 win at Tottenham, Dendoncker had been sidelined, kept out of the team by the Portuguese midfield duo of Rúben Neves and João Moutinho. There were suggestions that he might leave in January, that he would not be content to spend the remainder of the season on the bench.
But Dendoncker persisted. And when Wolves boss Nuno Espírito Santo chose to switch from his trusted 3-4-3 system to a 3-5-2, the Belgium international found himself with an opportunity.
Ever since, he has thrived. Adding physicality and steel to midfield alongside Neves and Moutinho, Dendoncker has established himself as a key player in a team that looks well on course to secure seventh place in the Premier League.
And since he has become a regular, Wolves have become even more difficult to beat: they have lost just three of their last 11 since beating Spurs at Wembley.
“I was thinking if I don’t play there must be a reason,” Dendoncker said in a recent interview with the Guardian. “It was a late transfer for me because of the World Cup with Belgium. I missed the training stage, so that made it a difficult start. Then the team started really well.
“I have played in this system before but every trainer has his way of thinking. He always wants to be well organised, which is very important in this system. I tried to look at the way they played, to see how we worked when they lost the ball and how we worked when we had the ball. Then I just tried to do my thing.”
That is exactly what Dendoncker has done. A midfielder capable of filling in at centre back, he is a hard tackler, powerful in the air and an energetic runner.
No player in Wolves’ team has managed more tackles per 90 minutes than Dendoncker’s 4.32. His more defensive inclinations compliment the technical proficiency of Neves and Moutinho, both of whom average over 45 accurate passes per 90.
Dendoncker is an asset when defending set pieces, too: the 23-year-old averages 2.42 clearances and 2.42 aerials won per 90 minutes. A midfield that might once have been considered lightweight, too easy to bully, has been shored up by the inclusion of the six foot two Belgian.
“He drives us on. He’s a runner and a powerful boy,” Wolves captain Conor Coady said of his teammate last month. “He wants to get on the ball, he wants to win tackles and get forward and get himself in the box. What he’s done up to now is fantastic.”
Dendoncker’s impact, then, has clearly not gone unnoticed. He has made an already strong Wolves side more robust, more combative.
There is another side to his game, too, which Coady has picked up on. Dendoncker, despite his defensive tendencies, is accomplished at making late runs into the box and boasts a fierce shot. It was in evidence at Goodison Park, when he scored his side’s third goal in a 3-1 win with a well-struck volley.
Dendoncker’s primary job, though, is to protect the back three, to win the ball back and recycle possession for his more creative teammates. So far, he has done that with great efficiency.
In his most recent game, a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Dendoncker was perhaps Wolves’ standout player. He made eight tackles, far more than any other player on the pitch, and proved an effective shield in front of the visitors’ defence. Chelsea’s frustration, and their inability to find a winning goal, was in no small part down to Wolves’ towering defensive midfielder.
“He’s fitted into the groups seamlessly,” Coady said of Dendoncker. “He’s a fantastic lad but more importantly he’s performing on the pitch which is brilliant to see. We’re such a close-knit group that everybody’s made him feel welcome, he’s been brilliant for us.”
If Dendoncker continues to perform as he has in recent weeks, he will soon be a favourite in the stands as well as the dressing room.