Every team’s got a precocious talent in their ranks. One who can mesmerise and infuriate in equal measure. For a while, Fulham seemed to specialise in them. Luis Boa Morte could terrify full-backs with his unique combination of pace and trickery only to go missing for large parts of games. Steed Malbranque was probably the most skilful footballer during my time at the Cottage but his career seems to have flat-lined since he was – perhaps unfairly – jettisoned by Tottenham. We may now have a candidate to succeed them in Moussa Dembele, whose blistering start to his Premier League career has given way to niggling injuries and a lingering sense of unrealised potential.
There’s no doubt Dembele has all the attributes to be a leading light in the Premier League. You only have to look at his early performances in a Fulham shirt to realise that. Virtually his first act on debut was to dribble away from three Manchester United defenders. There was that brilliant slide-rule pass to create Dickson Etuhu’s late equaliser and Blackpool and his timely brace that secured victory over Wolves, something which was in grave doubt for most of that afternoon. After that, we felt Mark Hughes had unearthed a real gem. Of course, he might have done – but it’s worth examining the reasons why Dembele’s first season in English football tailed off somewhat.
For one thing, there were the injuries. Dembele was the victim of a brutal assault by Andy Wilkinson towards the end of our Carling Cup defeat by Stoke in September. He might have been rushed back a little quickly from that (as he struggled to capture the same sharpness and zest as we saw earlier in the season) but there have been other knocks and niggles that have meant he’s been unable to find the rhythm that’s so crucial for a forward player. Perhaps a full pre-season – and the possibility of some competitive football now that our European place has been confirmed – will give Dembele the opportunity to develop the core fitness necessary to cope with the tough demands of a full English season.
I’ve another theory, though. It’s that Dembele isn’t really a striker. Most of his time at AZ Alkmaar was spent as a winger or advanced forward in a 4-3-3 formation and you can certainly see that how he can fit that role. He frequently drifts into wide positions or drops off the main striker – usually Bobby Zamora – into pockets of open space. Dembele’s keen to take on opponents with the ball at his feet and can be very dangerous attacking retreating defenders. The fact that he’s been deployed in at last three different positions by Hughes – as a withdrawn forward, main striker and a wide player – also adds to the impression that we’re unsure of where he might play best.
Certainly when’s he been playing up front, Dembele has been frustrating. As opportunities opened up going forward, he’s made the wrong decision. On the break, he’s tried to beat one more player or not released a team-mate in a better position (this was particularly evident on that frustrating afternoon at Wolves). Indeed, his tendency to snatch at shots indicates that he might perform better cutting in from a wide position than as a conventional striker. Out wide, you might be able to make more of Dembele’s obvious ability to hold onto the ball and how his movement attracts attention. But that in itself creates a real conundrum for Hughes.
In a rigid 4-4-2, it’s difficult to see where Dembele would fit in, although you couldn’t really say with any confidence that Fulham’s best side wouldn’t include him. As a striking partnership, Dembele and Zamora – who is surely first choice – haven’t really hit it off in the manner that Bobby and, say, Andy Johnson managed very quickly. If he was to be used out wide, he’d have to overcome the likes of Dempsey, Duff and Davies – and picking two of those three to play is painful enough. Hughes has been more adventurous that Hodgson in his formations, occasionally opting for a variant on the 4-3-2-1 when he’s wanted to use both Dempsey and Dembele.
Hughes has also used the 4-3-3 to good effect with his previous sides. It was his preferred formation at Manchester City and, with the amount of attacking options at his disposal down by the Thames, it’s one that would excite me. Damien Duff played the best football of his career under a similar Mourinho system at Chelsea and it would allow Hughes to use all of his pacey attackers. A forward line of Zamora, Dembele and Duff with Dempsey operating from slightly deeper would certainly pose some interesting problems for defences.
You sense that Dembele might have some fun in Europe next season too. Judging by the way he ran riot against Spurs in the FA Cup and his skilful attributes we’ve already discussed, he could see him enjoying the greater spaces and slower tempo in European competition. How to get the best out of him remains a bit of a quandary. He might just fire as an unorthodox centre forward next season. But I fancy that unlocking that undoubted potential could hold the key to our success over the next year or so.