It shouldn’t have ended like this. Not on a cold November night in Wolverhampton. Not in a game that marked his 250th appearance for the club. Not after only seven minutes played.
After an inauspicious clash with Ben Davies and Hélder Costa, Mousa Dembélé was withdrawn from the action; an ankle ligament injury delivering the coup de grâce to a club career plagued by ailments. Tragedy struck hard that night at Molineux: it turned out Dembélé would never play for Tottenham again.
It’s said all good things must come to an end, and after six-and-a-half years of service, 180 Premier League appearances, seven goals, an incalculable number of feints and pirouettes, Mousa Dembélé is riding off into the sunset; leaving a bitter British winter behind in favour of a new life in the New World — one laden with new money and new promise.
It’s strange for a key first team player (when fit) to leave with the blessings of both club and fans, but if anyone is deserving of picking up one last payday it’s this battered and bruised Belgian — the 31-year-old Tank has literally nothing left in his own as he prepares for life at Beijing Guoan.
And as Dembélé’s departure looms, how will fans reflect on his stint in north London? A vast majority would call it an unwavering success in the face of mounting injuries, but yet there remain others still not sold on the player; a player whose distinctive grace and inimitable talent is incomparable to any other home player to have graced White Hart Lane. And that’s no exaggeration.
As while Kane’s traits and skills can be held up and directly compared to Greaves, Alderweireld’s to King’s and (with a dose of hyperbole) Lloris’ to Jennings’ etc, how do you put a Dembélé under the microscope in relation to previous Spurs specimens when there’s never been a player quite like Dembélé at the club before?
As an athlete Dembélé is a freak of nature: a player who can coalesce the stature and strength of double-decker bus above the waist with the grace and finesse of a ballet dancer below it. When in full swing, he’s akin to a sixth former holding off hounds of weedy first years as they attempt to reclaim their stolen ball at breaktime.
Perhaps trepidation to prescribing Dembélé the “world-class” tag comes in the form of lack of end product — a goal every 0.04 games will hardly propel a player to legendary status among fans — but to analyse the Belgian in relation to his goal return is to miss the mark entirely.
Dutch superscout Piet de Visser, the man credited with discovering the talents of Neymar, Kevin De Bruyne, Ronaldo and Romário, noted this when speaking of Dembélé in 2016. "He’s a world-class player,” de Visser argued, “but [clubs] have often played him out of position. He's not a striker or a second striker, not even a number 10. He's at his best as a central midfielder, as an 'eight'. He will never score 15 goals in a season. He's an all-rounder.”
Echoing de Visser’s comments, Pochettino would certainly agree that Dembélé’s best position had been misdiagnosed during youth — a costly mistake that ultimately hindered development as well as perception of the player. “We always told him that if we had taken him at 18 or 19 years old, he would have become one of the best players in the world," the Argentine enthused.
So, is Dembélé destined to be remembered as a “nearly man” — a player who failed to hit the heights his ability warranted? His teammates — Alli, Dier, Rose, Winks and Wanyama — would disagree, all having named the Belgian Tottenham’s most talented when asked as much. High praise indeed.
But it was Pochettino who quashed any talk of Dembélé being a player falling short of “world-class” levels; comparing his “genius” midfield enforcer to Maradona and Ronaldinho. Many misconstrued their desired effect: what Pochettino had attempted to convey was that, like the South Americans, Dembélé's technique and approach to the game is so unique, so deft, it can’t be mimicked or, more specifically, coached.
One more question remains: would Dembélé have gone on to bigger and better if injuries hadn’t taken their toll? Most certainly. Like Ledley King, injuries not only hampered Dembélé’s time at Tottenham, they most likely kept the player at the club during his prime years. In a perverse sense, Dembélé’s pain was our gain: giving us the chance to witness a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime talent at the peak of his powers. Above all, a midfield Beast with true Beauty at his feet.
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