It’s almost a month to the day since Moussa Dembele excelled on his unofficial audition at the Theatre of Dreams. His performance for Fulham against Manchester United was worthy of a standing ovation, as he danced round defenders with the grace and poise of a ballerina in studs. The following morning’s gossip columns were decorated with stories linking the midfielder to a move up north but as Ferguson stood star struck, Spurs swooped in to take him across London instead.
I would argue that Dembele’s displays at Craven Cottage didn’t attract the praise they deserved, largely due to the goal-scoring exploits of Clint Dempsey, who incidentally also made the switch to White Hart Lane this summer. As technically gifted as any midfielder in the league, Dembele is also surprisingly powerful which helps him maintain possession as he carves through the opposition.
It would be slightly naïve of me to suggest that he is the perfect replacement for the outgoing Luka Modric, the player himself has stated he doesn’t “like the comparison”, but he will certainly help fill the void left behind while also softening the blow of the failure to acquire Porto’s Joao Moutinho.
His versatility across an extremely competitive midfield will stand him in good stead with Andre Villas-Boas, a manager who likes his players be industrious and combative – although he probably uses better ‘words’ – across all areas of the pitch. His initial role in the side has seen him sit deeper alongside Sandro, creating a far more balanced midfield and helping to consign Jake Livermore to his rightful place on the bench. However, Dembele is more than capable of playing further up field behind the striker, which should help coax the best out of Gylfi Sigurdsson, especially if he wants to maintain his place in the starting line-up.
If Dembele is gifted the creative freedom to roam forward then he can provide a genuine goal threat, as showcased by his excellent strike against Norwich. The club may end up relying on this clinical trait more and more this season, with last night’s game against Lazio marking the first time in over a year since Spurs have failed to find the net at home.
Herein highlights the main criticism of the Villas-Boas reign so far, an inability to kill teams off while on top. Emmanuel Adebayor has made little impact since his return and although Jermain Defoe is enjoying life as the first-choice striker, he will struggle to fashion opportunities as the lone forward against the countries best defences.
Dembele represents yet another fine export from Belgium, one who Spurs had to part with £15m to activate a release clause in his contract. His former boss Martin Jol was bitterly disappointed to see him leave and believes the club are already suffering in his absence.
“We’ve had a few players over the last few years who are a class above, Dembele is probably the best player on the ball I’ve ever seen, and we lost him.
“Dembele against ten men [versus West Brom] would have done something different. That is what we lacked a bit and that is why we couldn’t score the third goal.” (London24)
Andre Villas-Boas certainly seems impressed with his new addition to the squad, who has sparked an instant rapport with supporters still reeling from the recent exodus of iconic figures at the club.
“He’s a player who has tremendous technical skills, very creative playing forward and he really improved our game in the second half,”
“He’s a player we can count on for the season.” (tottenhamhotspur.com)
The one critique that journalists appear eager to associate with Dembele is that he doesn’t possess the same intricate, ball retention skills as either Modric or Moutinho. Whereas both these players like to caress the ball across the pitch with a series of short passes, Dembele favours the direct approach and will often carry the ball forward with a mazy run or two.
However, statistics show that during his opening two games for Fulham he accumulated an incredible 96% passing accuracy, trumping the likes of Joe Allen and Leon Britton. Perhaps then he is a more refined, evolved player blessed with all the skills of his predecessor but with a capability to put in a tackle as well as operate as a superior aerial threat.
It remains unclear whether Dembele was a long-term target for Spurs or whether chairman Daniel Levy simply saw a potential bargain and acted on of pure instinct. The club’s pursuit of the player may indicate why they were willing to let Tom Huddlestone leave on loan, a player who should really be at a similar level by now.
Villas-Boas will have undoubtedly preferred a reunion with Moutinho, a player who the club are widely expected to target again when the window reopens in January, but judging by this early evidence they may not even need him.