The Dembélé Conundrum

One night in Lyon. A triumphant night for Tottenham, a night that belonged to Mousa Dembélé. You all know what happened. As the clock ticked towards ninety, Spurs were in search of a goal to drag them into the Europa League last sixteen. They had been jabbing at the Lyon rearguard for the entirety of the second half, desperately trying to find a chink in the armour. In the end it came down to one individual moment of brilliance.

It was a beautiful goal. Dembélé, signed the previous summer for around £15 million, picked up the ball 35 yards from Rémy Vercoutre in the French team’s net, rounded one black shirt, just about maintaining his balance, before thrashing the ball into the far bottom corner. Cue hysteria in the away end, pubs and living rooms. Ultimately, it was a highlight in a heartbreakingly doomed European mission for Spurs, a footnote in history that will only be remembered by those that experienced the moment, rather than a step on the road to glory. What could have been.

There is a danger that Mousa Dembélé’s career will also be resigned to such insignificance. His arrival induced great excitement, a young midfielder, once a striker, that had starred at Fulham and had caught the eye of the likes of Manchester United. His delightful playing style would fit in perfectly at Tottenham. Dembélé glides across the ground, almost floating just above the surface as he skips past player after player. Gorgeous, sexy football.

The romance started off perfectly too. The Belgian scored on his debut against Norwich, another wonderful work of art, effortlessly tucked in the bottom corner. At Old Trafford, he and Sandro dominated the first half in Tottenham’s first win there for 23 years. Indeed, the combination Dembélé formed with the Brazilian was superb, the contrast in playing styles creating the perfect pivot. However, the knee ligament injury Sandro suffered away to Queens Park Rangers began a downturn in form for Dembélé and he has since rarely matched the heights of his first few months at White Hart Lane.

At his finest, Dembélé is intoxicating to watch. He toys with other players, letting them surround him and then bounce off him before drifting past with a swaggering gallop. No one in football can dribble quite like Dembélé. His natural talent could have propelled him to be one of the very best in the world his position. One of his former coaches at Spurs, Les Ferdinand, revealed on ITV’s Europa League coverage last season that the management at Tottenham used to encourage the midfielder by telling him ‘you’re the next person to go to Real Madrid from this club’. It’s a damaging and ridiculous motivational tactic from those within the club that has hopefully left with Ferdinand, Tim Sherwood and their team, but it does show the regard Dembélé is held in by those within the club.

Yet this gifted footballer is not dancing on the pitch of the Bernabéu, in fact he rarely sees the opportunity to do so at White Hart Lane. That’s because Dembélé has seldom been at his finest since Sandro’s injury and when he is at his worst, he can be diabolical. Even when he is good, he could be so much better. At 28 years old he should be playing the best football of his career, yet Dembélé has failed to develop significantly since André Villas-Boas signed him. Still he frustrates fans with his sideways and backwards passes. One moment he will amaze you with his typical nonchalant, almost indifferent, style of beating a man, but then when presented with time and space, it seems to all become too much for Dembélé, opting for the safe option rather than delving deeper into enemy territory or daring to grasp at glory himself.

It seems almost certainly a mental obstacle; the technical gifts Dembélé possesses are far beyond the realms of an average footballer; in fact, any player would desire some of the traits the Belgian has in his armoury. Is it laziness? Perhaps he simply doesn’t care about reaching his full potential; he’s openly admitted that he’s not interested in watching football, so perhaps he is content with being good, but not the best. Maybe his coaches haven’t done enough to push him to the next level. Possibly a mix of both. There’s something though that restricts Dembélé from exploiting opportunities when he creates them, instead preferring to wait for trailing opponents to catch up so that he can embarrass them all over again. Sometimes even worse, resorting to the dreaded backwards pass.

Whatever it is that holds Dembélé back needs to be broken quickly, before his last opportunity to become instrumental at Spurs passes him by. In fairness to him, there was a period last season that it looked like he had found a role in the side. Playing further forward than previously for Tottenham, he flourished for a brief spell, working in an attractive and skilled trio behind Harry Kane, alongside Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela. A torrid first half at home to West Ham though saw Dembélé hooked and he didn't start again until the last day of the season.

The treatment of Dembélé seemed harsh, particularly with the dwindling form of Christian Eriksen and Ryan Mason in the latter stages of the season. There may have been more to his fall than simply that disastrous 45 minutes, perhaps a falling out with Mauricio Pochettino, but Dembélé had let another opportunity slip. With all of the midfield outgoings, it would be a shock if Dembélé followed them out of the door this summer and so he has another season to prove his worth. His exile to the bench seems unfair from the outside, and you have to hope Pochettino gives the Belgian an equal opportunity with everyone else this season to make his mark and not let personal feelings cloud his selection.

Ultimately though, it comes down to Dembélé. He has to prove how much he wants his chance and how much he deserves it. This season, Dembélé must finally break out of the cage that has held him back from being an essential player, rather than just a talented one. He needs to take a risk once he has created space, drive forward, thread a pass, shoot at goal. Of course it won’t always come off, but Dembélé has the skill to make it work more often than not and that is what will turn him into a truly dangerous weapon. The spirit of Tottenham Hotspur is always emphasised as ‘daring to do’ and Dembélé needs to embrace that sentiment if he is ever to make a lasting mark on the club. Time is running out for the man from Antwerp, this season is his last chance to create a new moment, one much more significant and lasting than his night in Lyon.