Quiet strength. Here’s how to define Jason Denayer in a few words. In a year and a half, the 24-year-old Belgian has become a fixture at Olympique Lyonnais. A club in which he thrives day in and day out while taking on his responsibilities.
Propelled to captain at the start of the season by Sylvinho, the defender, who has regained the armband since the Memphis Depay injury, has big ambitions for 2020, such as helping Les Gones return to the forefront and take part in the Euro with the Red Devils. For Foot Mercato, the discreet academician Jason Denayer has come out of his reserve and confided at length, not evading any subject. Interview.
Football Mercato : The year 2020 has started off very well for Olympique Lyonnais, who had been through a difficult first half of the season. Are you surprised that it’s going so well for you ?
Jason Denayer : Surprised ? No, because I think we’ve got a quality band and it was going to come at some point. It’s coming in the beginning of the year 2020. It’s a little late, but it’s better late than never.
FM : How do you explain this revival ?
J.D : I think the holidays have done the band a lot of good. We’ve cleared our heads, we came back with a lot more positive thoughts. It paid off (…) Personally, I tried to think about something else, to clear my head and come back at 100%. This holiday was there to relax as much as possible.
FM : At one point, in the first part of the season, did you think the season was going to be very difficult ?
J.D : The season was difficult, because we went through moments that weren’t easy, especially during injuries or defeats, etc. I think it was a difficult time.
FM : you said in an interview that a match never keeps you awake. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the year, did you find it difficult to sleep ? Did you think more than usual ?
J.D : No, that’s something that, for me, remains in football. It means you have moments of reflection, after the match in the dressing room, one or two hours after the final whistle. I think it’s important for us to think about the rest and concentrate on our lives, which means the game’s over and there’s no turning back. So we might as well sleep well (smiles) and move on to tomorrow (…) But we’re definitely thinking more. We’re definitely thinking about it. But I wouldn’t go that far (smile).
FM : Looking back, how do you analyse the difficulties encountered in the first half of the 2019-20 financial year ?
J.D : At the beginning, everything started well. Then we lost games. We also got red cards. That’s no excuse. It was complicated. It was a moment you can’t really explain. I think today we’re all glad it’s over.
FM : Can this also be linked to the departures of Nabil Fekir, Tanguy Ndombele and Ferland Mendy ?
J.D : I think so, because they are players with a lot of qualities. So they’re players who weigh in for a group. For sure there was a difference. The players who replaced them also had to adapt. It wasn’t easy for them. It was definitely a loss for us to see them go (…) I’m still following what they’re doing this season. We’re still in touch.
FM : You were the team captain when Sylvinho was there. Did you experience the start of the season as a personal failure by wearing the armband ?
J.D : A personal failure ? No, because you’re not alone on the field. I think it was a collective failure. We all felt the same way. But when you’re a captain, you have a little more responsibility. So it’s definitely a little more touching. The most important thing for us was to get the momentum going again. I think that’s what we’ve been doing since the beginning of the year.
FM : Rudi Garcia then named Memphis Depay captain. How did you experience that ?
J.D : Personally, I’ve lived it quite well. It was the coach’s choice. It was a new coach who came with his vision of things. He gave the reasons why he chose Memphis. Those were his reasons. So I respected his decision. Memphis is a very good person and a very good player. I think he deserves it as much as I do.
FM : This armband came back to you after the Memphis injury. What kind of captain are you ?
J.D.: Me, I try to keep my personality. I try to remain myself, to not invent my own personality, to be different from what I am. I’m trying to stay the same person. When I have things to say, I say them.
Mbappé, the player who gave him the hardest time in the L1.
FM : you convinced us as soon as you arrived in Lyon. Were you expecting such a rapid evolution?
J.D : I was thinking and hoping above all for good performances. I think that’s what helped me. The fact that I speak French, which is my mother tongue, helped me a lot to integrate. We also had a band that was great and still is today. The group made it a lot easier for me.
FM : When you were introduced to Lyon, I remember you said your objectives were to play a series of matches, to be consistent and to get back to the Belgian national team. We can say that the OL bet has been successful for the moment.
J.D.: Lyon have given me a lot. It’s a club that’s given me “everything” on those points. For the moment, everything’s going really well. I hope it will continue like this.
FM: How do you judge your season so far ?
J.D : There have been ups and downs, just like the team’s performances. I think 2020 has started well. I hope it will continue like this. Personally, I’m going to do the best I can.
FM : CIES ranked you among the five best performing players in Europe last November. I suppose that’s flattering…
J.D : I hadn’t seen it, but it’s a pleasure, that’s for sure.
FM : You’ve been in Ligue 1 for about a year and a half. As a defender, which player has given you the most trouble here and why ?
J.D : Kylian Mbappé. He’s a player who is complete, who goes fast and who is technical. He has a great finish.
FM : You’re going to meet him again in a few days time as you’re going to face Paris Saint-Germain (9 February). How are you preparing for it ?
J.D : I’m not going to say I’m watching the videos because we all know him. We’re going to try to prepare ourselves collectively first. Then we’re going to try to do our best in the field.
FM : At the LO, which player impresses you the most ?
J.D : I think we have a very good squad. There’s Memphis, who’s a great player. Moussa Dembélé is too. There are also players like Berto (Bertrand) Traoré, who is technically superior, I think. We have a very complete squad. We also have Antho (Anthony) Lopes as goalkeeper (who is good).
FM : There are also a lot of good youngsters at the OL…
J.D : yes, among the youngsters there are Rayan Cherki, Amine (Gouiri), Maxence (Caqueret)…and I can go on and on….
FM : Concerning Rayan Cherki, had you ever seen such a strong 16 year old player during your career ?
J.D : At his age, I don’t think so. But there’s Jadon Sancho, who’s currently at Borussia Dortmund. I trained with him when I was at Manchester City. He’s the same kind of player who has the ability to make a difference at an early age. I hope for his sake that he keeps on working the way he is and continues to improve.
FM : You mentioned Amine Gouiri, who plays a little less. What do you think of him ?
J.D : He plays a little less, but I think there’s a lot of competition for his position. But he’s a very good player who has to keep on working the way he’s doing because he works a lot. It’s going to pay off.
FM : Oumar Solet, who plays for you, has been seriously injured. But until now, he too hasn’t had much playing time. What was he missing to get a little more chance ?
J.D : Oumar had already played with us before. Perhaps it was the confidence of the staff, etc… that he missed. Unfortunately, he got his injury. But he’s a very strong and complete player. I hope he will recover very quickly and come back very strong.
FM : your compatriot Héritier Deyonge joined the OL last summer. What role do you play with him ?
J.D : At the beginning, during the pre-season, we were together. I tried to help him as much as possible. Now, we don’t see each other too much because he plays with CFA. We’re a bit separated and we rarely see each other. But when we run into each other, we talk and exchange a little.
FM : You play alongside Joachim Andersen, who is going through a slightly more complicated adaptation than yours. How do you perceive him? What does he need to get back to his best level ?
J.D : There’s also the language barrier he has to deal with. That meant he had to adapt to the language, but also to a different culture and a different kind of football than Italy. I think he’s a very good player. It will take as long as it takes. Everyone adapts in their own way. He’s someone with a lot of qualities. When the time comes, I think it will be great… As I said, he’s a complete player. Maybe he just needs to get back to the confidence he had before and he’ll be fine.
FM : you are lined up alongside him or Marcelo. Does it change things in the way you play depending on whether you’re with one or the other ?
J.D: It certainly does, because they’re two different styles. I try to adapt myself as much as possible to each one’s style.
FM : As far as Marcelo is concerned, he too has gone through complicated times for other reasons, as he was in conflict with some of the fans.
J.D: Marcelo is someone with a lot of experience. He’s very mature. I think it’s been a difficult time for him with the fans. He’s been able to deal with them and today he’s managed to deal with them as well. I think he’s shown a lot of maturity and professionalism.
Belgium’s Belgian talks about his future and a return to the Premier League
FM : In the first half of the season in particular, Lyon conceded quite a few goals. As a defender, I imagine we take that very seriously.
J.D : As a defender, of course, when you concede goals (goals), it’s not easy. You’re constantly questioning yourself. But that’s part of football, we’re still going to concede goals.
FM : Rudi Garcia joined you last October. What is your relationship with him ?
J.D : We talk well. We talk about everything and nothing. We have a good relationship.
FM : You also have a very good one with Moussa Dembélé, whom you are close to. How do you look at him ?
J.D : Moussa is a player who has a lot of qualities, whether it’s natural or footballing. He’s a player who, for me, has a great future. He’s in the process of putting in a string of performances.
FM : Speaking of the future, are you afraid that English clubs will try to steal it from you by the end of the mercato? Is it fair to say it’s a championship fit for him ?
J.D : Afraid, I don’t think so. Personally, I’d be proud for him if he moved to a big club (in the future). I think we all expect that at some point. Let him keep going like that (…) I think he has everything to play there. He’s a player who’s physically extremely strong, who’s got scoring ability. So for me he’s a player who has everything to play for England.
FM : You also played in the Premier League. Is it possible to return there one day ?
J.D : Why not (smile).
FM : What did you miss to get there ?
J.D : I think I was a little too young and lacked patience. So I absolutely wanted to play and that’s why I’ve been loaned out several times. I think I lacked patience and maturity.
FM : you are still under contract until 2022 at the OL. Is an extension possible ?
J.D: I like myself in Lyon. So why not extend your contract ? It would please me.
FM : In almost a month’s time, you’ll face Juventus in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16. Are you watching them a little more closely ?
J.D : Not particularly. When Juventus play good matches, I watch them. But anyway, we’ll soon have some videos coming in from the analysts. So we’ll have time to study them carefully.
FM : You’re going to meet Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s scoring a string of goals at the moment. How do you feel about that? Do you feel more expected in a match like this as a defender ?
J.D : It’s nothing new for him to score goals (laughs). We’re preparing for it. They’re players who are unpredictable, players who’ve been repeating these performances for more than ten years I think. We already know what to expect. It’s not going to be easy. Anyway, all we can do is give our best. Then we’ll see (…) I feel a bit expected anyway. We’ll be the bulwark between the forwards and the goalie. So yes, I do feel a little expected.
FM : You might have the opportunity to get some advice from your former Celtic team-mate Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool), who has already crossed paths with CR7. Were you expecting such a rise from him? Is he the best defender in the world in your eyes right now ?
J.D : For me, he was already a player who was at ease when he was at Celtic. So his evolution was a bit normal. It was predicted. He deserves what he gets (…) Today, for me, he’s the best defender in the world.
Euro 2020 target
FM : Do you still use the remains of your former attacker ?
J.D : I don’t have much chance to be in front anymore (laughs)…but we’ll have to see.
FM : In a few months the Euro 2020 will take place. I imagine it’s in the corner of your head despite the strong competition…
J.D : yes, I’m definitely thinking about the Euro. But for that, you have to try to perform well to be called into the team. The most important thing is to focus on the club. That’s what will bring the call-up (…) There are the performances in the club, the call-ups before the Euro, all that will count.
FM : What are Belgium’s strengths ?
J.D : I think the Belgian team is quite complete. We have enormous qualities, especially in attack with Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, etc… They are very strong players. I think we’ll be fine.
FM : Is Eden Hazard the strongest player you’ve played with, clubs and selection combined ?
J.D : I think of Eden Hazard yes. When he has the ball, he does what he wants. He can make the difference. He has qualities of passing, of finishing. He’s super complete.
FM : It will take a big Hazard this summer to get the Red Devils to reach their goals. What are they ?
J.D : As I said, I think we’ve got a band to go very far at the Euro. Belgium’s objective is to win the Euro, given that we’re the top nation in the FIFA rankings. So I think that’s the goal. There are some very good teams like France, Germany and the Netherlands, so it won’t be easy.
FM : In the summer of 2018, there was a lot of talk about Belgium’s “seum” after their elimination against France. Is it still being talked about there or has it been totally digested ?
J.D : It’s more in France that we talk about it because in Belgium we don’t calculate too much. It’s true that when it happened, it was normal to be a little disgusted. But today it’s over.
FM : your relatives say you are a “cool” person and “have a lion in you”. Does this description fit you ?
J.D : I’m a pretty quiet and reserved person. I often like to be with my friends and family. I also watch games. Interesting matches with big teams. I like to follow when there are players I have played with or know. I often watch matches in England, Italy or Spain. I have friends who play in the Netherlands so I follow when they play.