Video - Leeds United's Belgian defender De Bock already feels at home
The left-back achieved a long-held career goal by moving to England when Leeds came calling last month '“ and he admits he is already impressed by what he has seen at the club and in the city. Phil Hay reports.
Whatever the destination, migration is becoming a habit for Belgian footballers with aspirations beyond domestic honours. Amongst the country’s professional clubs, only Anderlecht – the relentless post-war force in Belgium – are maintaining representation in the current squad, and even then through a couple of fringe players. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen; the list of English-based names is the tip of the talent spread across Europe.
De Bock, who was capped by Belgium 12 times at Under-21 level, took the leap last month when he left Club Brugge for Leeds United in a £1.5m move.
His hand was forced to an extent by Brugge marginalising him with a close-season shift to a three-man defence but De Bock would have fancied the move regardless. As a youngster he remembers watching Match of the Day on Belgian television. “I think everybody who is a football player wants to play in England,” he said.
Brugge were good for De Bock and the left-back made a mark there, playing over 100 times and winning both the Belgian league title and the national cup, two trophies the club had been chasing without success for many years.
“I liked my time in Bruges and I was very happy,” De Bock said. “But I was there for five years and sometimes you have the feeling for something new – new objectives and challenges. I think my time at Brugge was finished and I had to go somewhere else to start again.
“When you are in Belgium, as a young player, they ask you where you want to go when you are older. Everybody says they want to go to the Premier League or to England. I spoke to some guys who were in my team who had played in England before, like Jelle Vossen, who was at Middlesbrough, and Jordy Clasie (the Southampton midfielder). I asked for some advice. They said that when you have the opportunity, you need to go.”
De Bock has twice flirted with a full cap, denied once by an untimely rib injury while his form with Brugge was at its height and again when he failed to make the final cut for Euro 2016.
A transfer to Leeds and the Championship could open the door again in time but De Bock is an out-and-out left-back. Belgium coach Roberto Martinez favours a three-man defence and De Bock does not think of himself as a natural wing-back.
“In Belgium they play a system with three defenders but I’m mostly a pure left-back,” he said. “In that case it’s a little bit difficult. I think the coach has searched for other players who can be in this position. It’s always an objective to play for your country but I don’t think it’s realistic at the moment.
“I could become that (a wing-back) but when you’re a left-back you have a real opponent. You can focus on one guy. When he’s on the ball you can go one-to-one. When you’re a wing-back you have the opportunity to go forward. The left central defender needs to cover you and you are more independent. You have more freedom. But I prefer (left-back).
“My former team also played with wing-backs and the coach expected more qualities to attack than qualities to defend. My qualities to defend are, I think, much better than my qualities to attack.”
That is no great problem for Leeds who, prior to De Bock’s arrival, were crying out for a specialist left-back in a four-man defence. The club lost a box-to-box player in Charlie Taylor last summer and De Bock is yet to show if he can replicate Taylor’s attacking intent but the basics of defending there were an issue for Thomas Christiansen throughout the first half of the season. De Bock’s debut in the mayhem of a 4-3 defeat to Millwall was impossible to draw conclusions from. His performance in Tuesday’s goalless draw at Hull City was disciplined and pleasingly watertight.
Hull, nonetheless, was a dour and largely unwatchable game; an introduction to the Football League in the coldest months of the year. Millwall, by contract, was an epic match with a ludicrous plot which called on De Bock to play as a wing-back in the second half after Liam Cooper was sent off in the first. His family were present en masse at Elland Road and the atmosphere in the second half, as United fought back from 2-0 down to lead 3-2 with 10 men, resonated with all of them.
“It’s a little bit similar in Belgium,” he said. “Brugge are known for their crowds and are very fanatical. Leeds is the same. You feel when you walk into the city that everyone loves Leeds.
“When we scored to make it 3-2 against Millwall, it was an unbelievable atmosphere. My family were in the stand – my son, father and girlfriend – and they said they had not seen it before, not even in Brugge. When I enter the pitch I play much better with a better atmosphere. It creates the fire in you.”
Fire is what Leeds need after a dry January which poured water on their fight for promotion. Cardiff City, positioned fourth in the table, visit Elland Road for the sort of feisty fixture which De Bock seems to relish.
“In football it can go very fast,” the defender said. “Now we are four points behind but in two weeks we might be four points ahead. We know we have a lot of difficult games coming on but we have a lot of quality in the team too. I think when everyone is fit again and able to play, we’ll be ready to get the points to get into the Premier League.”