While I may have taken the aftermath of Mousa Dembele’s departure to Spurs as an opportunity to have a bit of fun on Twitter at the expense of the unbaringly tedious doom-brigade (that wasn’t the only one I did either), which always inevitably infest a football club, I was still very disappointed when Jol announced Dembele was leaving the club. Hearing that you’re most valuable and talented player is leaving while still trying to justify a shocking Fulham performance which rendered just a single shot on target – against a side who were 2 divisions below in May – makes it even more difficult to take. Nonetheless, we are not in a hopeless situation. Here are my thoughts on Dembele’s time here and how Fulham will move on from this. You can skip down to the bottom as I answer the latter, if you wish.
Mousa Dembele has conducted himself with dignity throughout his tenure at Fulham, stating when he first joined that he always intended to move to a larger club and never promising us any more, while always delivering determined performances on the pitch, despite some frustrating opening few months. Even throughout the Summer his comments were always considered and he never once demonstrated a willingness to let down the fans and the team mates that respected and enjoyed his presence on the pitch. That is to his great credit, and while I hate to preach it is interesting to contrast that with the behaviour of Clint Dempsey, who I believe has let both himself and everyone connect to the club down. I certainly don’t begrudge him this move.
Dembele’s transfer was exciting when it first came through. The first ‘big’ signing after the Hodgson departure, it seemed to reflect a change in philosophy at the club under new manager Mark Hughes, one of young, flair players. Having beaten Birmingham to his signature, the purchase of Dembele for a little over £4m appeared to be quite a coup, a highly rated young attacker who’d been interesting some of the bigger names. His first season in England was disappointing however, having taken a disgusting tackle from Stoke’s Andy Wilkinson in a 3rd round League Cup match which disrupted his game enough to sufficiently deny him the opportunity to make much of an impact in England – although his two goals against Wolves in his second League home match, including that last minute winner, provided one of the most satisfying wins I’ve experienced as a Fulham fan.
It is interesting, though, to roll back the clock 12 months. At that time, and in most of the 12 months preceding that as well, Dembele’s place in the team was a topic of hot debate amongst Fulham fans. Almost everyone to a tee could notice that he was someone special – Jol and the players especially -, a way with the ball which hadn’t been seen at Fulham since George Best perhaps. No one in the league can drift past players as effortlessly as Dembele. However, hat didn’t prevent some fans from calling him a luxury player, citing his lack of impact in the final third. To be fair, they had a point, and that is an issue that remains with Dembele’s game to this day.
There were two big moments where Dembele’s transition from ‘luxury’ to ‘awesome’ were really accentuated. The first was QPR at home, when we won 6-0 and Dembele (among 10 others it has to be said) gave an imperious performance from right midfield. This was importantl; it was the first time we saw Dembele deeper, having almost exclusively been played behind the striker at Fulham and as a very far forward winger at AZ, and hinted at his ability to drive at a defence from deep as well and pass the ball in space as well as win the ball back. The second was the first time he ever played in central midfield, against Chelsea away, where he gave a dominant demonstration of how to put yourself about in the middle and how to make top class players look silly. Whether it was by accident or design, and I’d suggest it was a bit of both considering the manager’s hand was forced into that formation due to injury troubles, Jol had finally unleashed the beast that was Moussa Dembele, a central midfielder who ended the season topping the stat charts of tackles won, dribbles completed (by a considerably scary distance) and passes completed in the league.
As I say, Dembele never looked back from that masterstroke, and we Fulham fans should consider ourselves fortunate that we could witness such supreme talent blossom so wonderfully. Not to say that we still owe him anything, in fact we were marvellous for each other, but to see such talent in a team is rare, and much more so the combination of things that made Dembele the player that he is. He has limits – he isn’t directly involved enough in creating and scoring goals – but those are offset by his utterly remarkable penchant of beating a player. No matter who they are, how experienced they may be, how many medals they’ve won, Dembele could beat them with the most simple and subtle change in direction. It is quite incredible to watch something only otherwise seen, at least on my screens, in Messi (but that is where my comparison will stop), but there is no doubting his change of direction, pace, balance, just awe-inspiring.
His passing is not particularly creative or strong but he has flair – see Dembele’s gorgeous backheel to Pogrebnyak in the 1-0 victory over QPR in February – and that is capped off with an enormous work rate and tackling success. His ball-winning abilities can not be understated; as a majestic ball player you would traditionally associate that with lightweight defensive capabilities but Dembele well and truely breaks the mould, using his quick feet and considerable upper-body strength to gain possession back for his team. His mobility and stamina complete all the attributes one would need in a central midfielder. So there’s no doubting that he is unorthodox in that position, but it works, and how it does.
I will enjoy watching Tottenham this season. I previously thought that would be more impressive than last season, with a manager who is naive but talented and with a squad much more receptive to his ideas than the one which failed in last season’s Chelsea experiment, and Dembele’s transfer will just encourage me to take more of an interest. So all the best to Mousa Dembele at his new club – I just hope, and I think I say this on behalf of all Fulham fans, he doesn’t discover how to score goals when we face him in the opposition line up!
So that’s Dembele for you. So what about Fulham? Well, this transfer had something of an inevitability about it and as such I am not outraged, and fairly acceptent of the situation. The reported fee of £15m represents good value for a player into the last 12 months of his contract and a 300% mark-up on his initial transfer fee. From a business end, you can’t really argue with it. Don’t mistake me for being happy with this transfer, because I’m not by a degree, but it is what it is, and that sounds remarkably lame but such is the way of the world.
I have no doubt whatsoever that Fulham were desperately keen to keep him, and it would be baffling to me and insulting to the good people at our football club if you were to think otherwise but Dembele did, fundamentally, see his name in brighter lights than Fulham Football Club. Only if we qualify for the Champions League sooner than Tottenham will we have the right to complain at Dembele I feel. I really don’t mean this to be disparaging about our tremendous club, an entity which I have a huge amount of affinity and respect for, but just as we will poach from smaller clubs than ourselves we will lose players to bigger ones. So, contrary to a fairly substantial opinion, this isn’t a lack of ambition or anything from the club, it is just how the system works.
The compensation figure from Tottenham is reported to be between £15m and £23m. I prefer to be cautious in my estimates and I will go with the lower figure quoted, but even that is not insignificant. Fulham are not a poor club, in fact we had a considerable transfer budget lined up before Mousa left, and so I expect that in the last couple of days we will do a lot of business. Gomis from Lyon looks fairly likelyand the transfer of Noble or another talented central midfielder seems overwhelmingly probable too. Add to that another couple of bodies and our squad is looking strong. Also, as I type this we still have Clint Dempsey at the club. I can’t work out if that’s a good thing or not but I’d like to think we are better with him than without.
Will we replace Dembele with a similarly-abled player? No. He’s just gone to a club which will be aiming for a top 3 finish in the league and will play a very important role in that effort. But that doesn’t mean to say we cannot replace him. If we buy a very adequate central midfielder, a very good centre forward and a bright winger that may fit into Jol’s system more than Duff say (like Noble, Gomis and Chadli, names which have been closely linked with Fulham this summer) for a total of £20-25m, then arguably we are as good a side as we were with Dembele with a bit more balance to it. I have no doubt that the club have legislated for losing Dembele and I wouldn’t be surprised if we enquired into several names throughout summer.
I am sad to see him go. He blessed us with his magical feet. But we will move on. We are fortunate enough to be run by exceptionally competent football people in Alistair Mackintosh and Martin Jol who will be able to engineer a suitable reaction I’m sure.
We shall see how we fair by the end of the transfer window to see whether this will be just another season of transition or whether we can actually consolidate our place as an attractive, brilliant, football team. Most importantly though, more than Dembele, or the fifteen million or any managers we have, on Saturday we are lucky enough to go see the most magical thing we can experience in football. Craven Cottage and Fulham still stand.