For many outside of Belgium, the golden generation has failed to live up to its expectations. However, in Belgium, the World Cup semi-final loss to France and third place finish was met with joy and celebration. Going into Qatar 2022, many believe that this generation is over the hill, and it is going to be the last tournament many will play. This is certainly the case among the defence, with the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen on the wrong side of 30. Where the future Alderweireld and Vertonghen is something that Belgian football officials and fans are looking at. Roberto Martinez has not called up the usual suspects at the back, such as Dedryk Boyata and Jason Denayer, instead opting for youth with the likes of Wout Faes and Arthur Theate.
Former KV Oostende defenders Faes and Theate have moved on from the Belgian league. Faes left for Reims before joining Leicester, while Theate ended up in Rennais after a spell with Bologna. However, another younger central defender has emerged in the Belgian Pro League this season who looks set for a big move in the future months.
Anderlecht have one of the best academies in Belgium, and a long history of producing international quality players. Zeno Debast appears to be another one of these emerging talents. Injuries during the 2021/2022 season limited the defenders playing time, yet a clean bill of health over the summer has seen Debast feature in every single one of Anderlecht’s Pro League games this season.
Debast’s performances have not gone unnoticed. Roberto Martinez liked what he saw from the Anderlecht youngster, calling him up for the Nations League matches against Wales and the Netherlands in September. Debast played the full 90 in both matches. Following his debut, Martinez called it one of the most impressive international debut’s he had seen. It was obvious then that Debast had gone ahead of the likes of Boyata and Denayer in the defensive pecking order for the Red Devils.
What helps Debast is that, for the majority of this season he has operated in a back three, a defensive formation that Martinez has used often during his time with the Red Devils. Yet when Anderlecht have switched to a back four, Debast has always appeared comfortable. That tactical flexibility is one area that Debast can offer Martinez at the World Cup.
Where Debast impresses is in his maturity in defence. Alongside the experienced players of Wesley Hoedt and Vertonghen, the 19 year old looks calm and composed. In many ways, Hoedt’s inconsistency this season has highlighted the consistency of Debast even further. He reads the game well, having won over 60% of his tackles so far this season. At a young age, it is expected that teenage defenders will make plenty of mistakes. While Debast is by no means the finished article, the fact he only has two yellow cards so far this season is a testament to his ability to read danger and react without fouling.
In a recent match against Antwerp, Vertonghen had to pull out during the warm up due to injury. Debast was then left to lead the defence with 23 year-old Hannes Delcroix. Debast led the back four to a clean sheet against second in the league Antwerp, away from home in front of a hostile crowd. He never appears flustered when under pressure, instead thriving on it and taking extra responsibility in his stride.
While Anderlecht are by no means having a good season by their standards, defensively they have been solid. They have only conceded 20 goals in 16 games, giving them the same defensive record as Club Brugge in fourth. Debast has to take credit for that, being the only ever present alongside goalkeeper Hendrik Van Crombrugge.
Given their squad strength, Belgium will certainly see a lot of the ball in Qatar, as many teams will want to sit back and hit them on the counter. As a passer, Debast certainly has the ability. Anderlecht tend to produce players who are good technicians, comfortable on the ball regardless of where they play. Debast has an 83% passing accuracy rate this season, an impressive number for a young defender.
Given his rise through the Anderlecht youth academy, the comparisons with Vincent Kompany are already beginning to circulate. Debast still clearly has some way to go to emulate the career of one of Belgium’s and Anderlecht’s greatest defensive products, but Martinez glowing review of the players international debut suggests that he has the potential.
This World Cup Debast may well get the chance to play big minutes for the Red Devils. We could therefore be witnessing the first tournament of many for a future star of the Belgian national team, and world football. It certainly won’t be long until top European sides come calling for the Anderlecht star, and the Mauves will certainly ask for a kings ransom for their talented defender.