As the transfer window drew to a close on Tuesday and it became increasingly likely that Fulham weren’t going to be signing another striker, I was probably one of the few pleased Fulham fans. Instead of a loanee coming in and taking his game time, Moussa Dembele will now get to continue in the Fulham side.
Last week’s League Cup game was something of a breakthrough for the young striker. While Man of the Match against Sheffield United went to Ryan Tunnicliffe, the undoubted star of the game’s most fascinating sub-plot was Dembele.
It was a bewildering game for the striker, and until the 94th minute it seemed like it was ‘just one of those days’ for Dembele. As the game wore on, it appeared his confidence in front of goal was getting visibly lower – each passing shot getting marginally worse. Throughout the game though, Moussa’s work rate and attitude were exemplary and he didn’t stop trying.
Whereas even a seasoned pro might be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t their day, Dembele was working as hard in the last minute as he was in the first. This was recognised by the sparse but enthusiastic crowd, who rewarded each miss with increasingly louder renditions of his name being sung in an attempt to keep his spirits up. It was truly heartening to see the crowd using its voice to pick the striker up as the game progressed. We all wanted him to score, for it was the least his endeavour deserved. His last second goal was as deserved a goal as Craven Cottage has seen in some time.
There is also the thought process with Dembele that it is just a matter of getting the first few goals under his belt before he starts to score regularly.
Former Arsenal, Barcelona and France forward Thierry Henry, who now works as a pundit for Sky Sports, spent a good portion of the transfer deadline day coverage explaining the importance of games for young strikers in particular. He was referring to Anthony Martial, the 19 year old signed by Manchester United after only 52 professional games, but the logic follows through to Dembele. Strikers are not the finished product at 19, it is important to remember that.
Dembele is currently benefiting from the injury to Matt Smith with Saturday’s game at Rotherham marking his third consecutive start.
Talk of Dembele being the next big thing might be a bit premature, with his first league goal still proving elusive. However, in 15 all-competition appearances last season Moussa only actually played 575 minutes. Hardly what you’d call consistent game time.
Given such limited playing opportunities there was a sense last season that Dembele was overthinking his chances. He was so desperate to score that it appeared to get inside his head at times. Having also been the victim of some terrific saves, such as those from Joe Murphy when we played Huddersfield a week and a half ago, Dembele’s demeanour has often screamed “what do I have to do to score”.
At this stage in his career, the answer to that question is very simple. He has to rely on instinct. His goal last week, and those he scored at the same stage of the League Cup last year against Derby, was scored when he didn’t have the time to think. It is the same with those chances he has had saved, they have nearly all been from instinctive shots or headers.
It sounds cliché, but you cannot teach instinct. Experience teaches a player what to do in different situations. It is far better for a young striker to be able to score instinctively, than the other way round. What bodes even better is that Moussa can already create chances of his own accord, processing those chances is the last missing link.
In showing that he undeniably has those goalscorers instincts, Moussa has shown he is different to our other young striker, Cauley Woodrow. Cauley is not a natural goalscorer to the same extent, but he is clever and given an opportunity to fashion a chance for himself or others and he will. It is why the two of them played so well together in youth football, they play to each other’s strengths.
Whereas in the past Moussa was, rightly or wrongly, accused of having an inferior attitude, recently he has blown that accusation out the water. His work ethic on the pitch has been very impressive.
Having developed physically quite significantly over the past year, Moussa used all of his pace and strength against Sheffield United. That in the 92nd minute he was able to take a ball down in mid-air, turn towards goal, run past a defender and get hauled down for a justified red card, shows exactly how hard he was working.
Dembele is one of the two remaining marquee young players to not sign a new contract. The other being Emerson Hyndman, the USA midfielder. However, unlike Hyndman, who has been relegated to the U21s, Dembele’s place in the starting line-up indicates there may have been a shift in his attitude off the pitch too. It may be hyperbole to suggest Dembele can be the answer to our striking problems, but the truth is he could be. He just needs the games. Getting him to sign a new contract may yet be our best piece of business even after an impressive summer.
Staying at Fulham may also yet prove to be the best option for Moussa himself. The last week of the transfer window saw Norwich have a bid of £10m rejected for Benik Afobe at Wolves. Afobe is the typical example of a striker, trapped at a big club (in his case Arsenal), only to move down to the Championship, where the game time he was given over the course of just one season allowed him to develop into an eight figure player.
Of course nothing is guaranteed and without continued hard work and game time Dembele may not progress as hoped.
Young strikers are dime a dozen and goals in youth football are no guarantee of first team success. Only a handful really make it to the top, but with his newfound place in the side Dembele has the chance to build on the green shoots of potential he showed against Sheffield United.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been happy with a player of Hooper’s proven calibre, but for now, I hope Dembele signs a new contract and Symons has the good sense to keep him in the team, even if it does take a few more games for him to break his league duck.