In this series, we take a look at some of the most interesting young talents in the world of football. Next up is Standard Liège’s promising center-back, Zinho Vanheusden.
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Zinho Vanheusden arrived at Inter Milan when he was 16, winning the Scudetto and Coppa Italia with the Nerazzurri U19 team in the 2016/17 season, scoring a header in the final against Fiorentina. However, when he was just about to debut in the first team, he suffered a knee ligament injury and Inter decided to loan him to Standard Liege – his former club – a loan that later became a €12,5M permanent deal. Now rumor has it that there’s an agreement between Inter and Standard to let him come back to Italy for €20M, even if other teams are interested in him. At the moment, the Belgian league’s activity is suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the latest news refers to a layoff from Standard, due to the player’s refusal to cut his salary. But, according to his recent social media activity, he’s apparently training with the team.

In the last two years, regardless of a second knee injury suffered in May 2019, he played almost 60 games and, at 21, he can definitely be considered as a mature player. He was always played in a four-man defense, mainly as a right center-back. Zinho (a name that honours the 1994 World Champion Brazilian footballer) has obvious skills and likewise obvious flaws. Let’s start by saying that he hasn’t either great mobility or explosiveness – probably due to his knee injuries. He can cover large areas of the pitch, mainly thanks for his long stride – he’s 1.90m tall – but he prefers to play for time in open-spaced 1v1s. Fearing to lose his duel with fast-paced opponents, he prefers to let them reach the box. This passiveness when facing 1v1 duels in open spaces, is the biggest obstacle for a possible fit in a 3-men defense like Antonio Conte’s one, as the Italian manager often requests his players to defend with almost the entire own half at their back.

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In this example, Vanheusden leads the opponent towards his box, keeping such a distance that allows him to move the ball and shoot with the right foot, while he’s still trying to find his balance after changing direction.

That said, Vanheusden’s tactical intelligence still needs praise, as he often manages to avoid both open-spaced 1v1s and opponent shots. He’s one of those technical defenders that never lose sight of the ball. Instead of using strong-arm tactics in delicate areas of the pitch – mainly the box – he rather turns himself into a second goalkeeper, stopping shots with his body, even with sliding tackles. But his defensive technique is at its best when he anticipates the opponent He’s aggressive and tough, managing to move the opponent thanks to his physique, but he often reaches the ball first with his feet, even when the ball seems under the attacker’s control. This skill is the most directly applicable to a high and aggressive 3-man defense.

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Here, Vanheusden reads the situation like an attacker and manages to anticipate the opponent with world-class smoothness.

Maybe it goes without saying, as the Belgian center-back school that’s led by Kompany and Alderweireld is a guarantee, but Zinho (who played with all the youth national teams from U15 to U21) shows great confidence when building up the play. Nothing extraordinary, let’s be honest, but he can alternate a more conservative style, passing the ball to the full-back or the keeper when under pressure, while trying more ambitious passes in advanced areas of the pitch.

This last skill could only improve under Conte, as the Italian manager insists on elaborate build-up from the back, studying the midfielders and forwards’ unmarking and movement to allow the defenders to easily build up the play. For sure, wherever he will play next year, the leap to a bigger league will be huge. If his knee can remain healthy, Vanheusden will be able to play with a certain continuity and the areas he can improve – both physically and technically – are huge, even if he already is a great young center-back.

 

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