According to the ‘boffins’ at the CIES Football Observatory, Mousa Dembele has been the best box-to-box midfielder in Europe this season, narrowly beating Blaise Matuidi and Ilkay Gundogan; according to Sky Sports’ Power Rankings, he has been the 28th best player in the Premier League, narrowly beaten by Danny Simpson. The truth lies somewhere between the statistics, but rather closer to the former: Dembele has been the complete package in Tottenham’s not-quite season.
For proof – should it be required – of the Belgian’s import this season, you need only look at Ryan Mason and then at the statistics:
Tottenham’s 2015/16 league record when Dembele has started in central midfield: Played 24; Won 15; Drawn 9; Lost 0. Points per game – 2.25.
Tottenham’s 2015/16 league record when Dembele hasn’t started in central midfield: Played 13; Won 4; Drawn 4; Lost 5. Points per game – 1.23.
Toby Alderweireld has been the Premier League’s most consistent defender, Eric Dier’s move into midfield has made a virtue out of the defensive failings of Tottenham’s full-backs, Harry Kane has defied logic by being Harry Kane again, Dele Alli has been a revelation and Christian Eriksen has been the quiet but industrious schemer, but Tottenham’s title challenge would have stalled without the all-action dynamism of Dembele. Jamie Carragher stumbled upon the right word last month:
“You see how many times he breaks up play and runs past people. When you think of the power of Emmanuel Petit, maybe we should be comparing him to Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira or Petit. The powerhouse midfielders.”
The justifiable comparison with Keane – particularly after Dembele showed his nasty side in recent weeks – should grate with Manchester United fans even 11 years after the Irishman’s exit. On a day when some United fans threw virtual toys out of virtual prams because United have missed out on the £27.5m signing of an 18-year-old midfielder they have not seen outside of Youtube videos, it’s worth remembering that previous United managers and chief executives have also dallied, dithered and then been left with egg on their faces.
In the summer of 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson looked at a list of central midfielders including the 38-year-old Paul Scholes, 31-year-old Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Anderson and an ill Darren Fletcher and decided – quite rightly – that he needed reinforcements. This was also the summer that Ferguson decided that Paul Pogba was not worth Paul Pogba’s ego. There was talk of a £10m move for Dembele but Fulham wanted £15m and stood firm; at the start of the 2012/13 season, the Belgian came to Old Trafford with Fulham and was phenomenal in a 3-2 defeat for the Cottagers. A few days later he signed for Tottenham.
‘Sir Alex Ferguson hesitates and sees Tottenham swoop for Moussa Dembele, the latest Belgian to impress in England’ was the headline in the Daily Telegraph as Jim White noted: ‘On Saturday he produced almost as many tackles against Manchester United as he did penetrative passes. Eight times he cleanly dispossessed home players, before launching a series of incursions that spread panic in the United defence.’
A month later, Tottenham came to Old Trafford and won for the first time since 1989. You can only imagine what Ferguson was thinking as he watched Dembele glide past Scholes and Carrick. As The Guardian wrote: ‘Dembélé excelled, just as he had when Fulham visited Old Trafford last month, reminding Ferguson of the talents that had seen United bid for him earlier in the summer.’
By the end of the season, it was no longer Ferguson’s problem that United had missed out on Dembele; Robin van Persie’s goals had brought them an unlikely title victory with a ragtag collection of central midfielders, defying logic long before Leicester turned it on its head. Would United’s recent history be different had they signed Dembele, who thrived under Andre Villas-Boas before Tim Sherwood decided that Nabil Bentaleb was better, before blooming again under Mauricio Pochettino? Would there be emojis and Vines being deliriously tweeted about Renato Sanches if Dembele was striding through midfields clad in red rather than white?
Football is full of ‘what ifs’ and short memories, but Manchester United’s midfield needed major surgery before Edward Woodward walked in carrying rusty scissors and a sample from United’s official chopstick partner.