Two years ago, Thomas Meunier was one of Belgium’s surprise stars at Euro 2016. The Red Devils may have crashed out of the competition at the quarter-final stage, but the right-back, then a relative unknown across the continent, did enough to attract interest from Europe’s top teams. Ultimately, PSG landed themselves a steal in the defender, who swapped Bruges for Paris for a rumoured €7m, a bargain buy to say the least.
Competing with Serge Aurier for a starting spot, Meunier was the better of the two, with PSG electing to sell the former last summer. However, that coincided with Dani Alves’ arrival and while Meunier had done little wrong, the Brazilian was immediately instilled as PSG’s starting right-back. The 26-year-old has been linked with a move away from France for some time now due to a lack of action, even accounting for Unai Emery’s exit and Thomas Tuchel’s appointment, and Alves’ injury that forced him out of the World Cup.
Despite struggling to really consolidate a starting spot at club level, Meunier is first choice on the international stage. What’s more, in Roberto Martinez’s three-man backline, he is working in a system that will maximise his attacking qualities. Despite a lack of regular action, Meunier still scored four and registered four assists for PSG in Ligue 1 last season, this coming from starting at right-back.
Likely to feature from the off as a wing-back under Martinez this summer, Meunier will operate higher up the pitch with the requirement of stretching opponents in Belgium’s electrifying attack. With Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens set to start alongside Romelu Lukaku in a front three, there is little chance for the trio to pull wide and open up space, with the former pair expected to cut infield from the left and right, respectively, which increases the responsibility of the wing-backs, which is set to be Meunier and Yannick Carrasco.
Meunier returned a hugely impressive 73.1% dribble success rate, as per WhoScored.com, which was one of the best of defenders to attempt 25 or more dribbles in Ligue 1 last season. Standing at 6’3”, the defender is incredibly difficult to shake off possession and it translated into a return of 1.1 successful dribbles per 90. Indeed, he was dispossessed just 0.5 times per 90 and while this was largely due to PSG’s sheer dominance of France’s top tier, they are notable figures for the defender.
With averages of 1.2 key passes and one accurate cross per 90 last term, as and when Meunier beats a man, he has the means to easily pick out a teammate and create a goalscoring opportunity. Having played in a more reserved system under Marc Wilmots two years ago, Meunier will look to exploit Martinez’s preference for attacking for a Belgium side hoping to ease past England, Tunisia and Panama.
Belgium have ample personnel in Mertens, Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, but the forward-thinking Meunier stands to profit from a Red Devils outfit that has incredible attacking firepower. With De Bruyne able to thread passes through the eye of a needle, he’ll no doubt look to Meunier to get in behind opposition full-backs, which he is more than capable of doing, before playing his compatriot in to either help drive defences back or put a ball into the box for one of Belgium’s attacking stars to score.
He may not be the most glamorous name on the team sheet, but there is a very good reason why he is one of the first and that should remain the case in Russia this summer. Two years playing alongside some of Europe’s best players should theoretically have improved Meunier and after his fine performances in France in 2016, the defender is primed to shine once more in a more advanced role that’ll benefit both player and national team.