In the summer of 2015, it was rumored that Mousa Dembele was set to call it quits at Tottenham Hotspur and become a teammate of Vito Mannone and Lee Cattermole at Sunderland. It was a transfer that, at the time, wasn’t so outlandish for a player who tended to frustrate Spurs fans.
Instead of enlisting for warring Wearside, Dembele finally left north London on Thursday for the Chinese Super League. A player who once drew the ire of the crowd at White Hart Lane now departs a Spurs icon.
It’s quite the transformation for Dembele, who, for much of his career, cut an almost nomadic figure as he camped in various slots across the park. That was before he fully utilized his vast wealth of talent under Tottenham tactician Mauricio Pochettino.
The Belgian first captured attention outside of Belgium and the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar, where, under Louis van Gaal, he unexpectedly collected the 2008-09 Eredivisie title. He was moved from up front to predominantly play on the right wing in that historic campaign, scoring 10 goals and lining up alongside others who would make their way to the Premier League in Graziano Pelle, Sergio Romero, Ragnar Klavan, and Sebastien Pocognoli.
In 2010, Dembele moved to Fulham half a month into Mark Hughes’ spell as manager. By the time his second league start was over, he already had a doe-eyed following at Craven Cottage via two second-half goals that saw off Wolverhampton Wanderers. “In Dembele, they may already have (Bobby) Zamora’s replacement,” Conrad Leach conservatively forecasted for the Guardian.
Pinning Dembele as a reasonable replacement for the injured Zamora – a bustling English striker used for better players to bounce balls off of – showed Hughes, like those before him, hadn’t yet come to grips with the best way to deploy Dembele’s strength, floaty dribbling, and immaculate vision.
But Martin Jol did. The former Spurs manager assumed the helm after Hughes and found that pushing Dembele into midfield helped alleviate the goal-scoring burden from the Belgian’s shoulders while bringing some of his gifts to the fore.
“In England, a striker has to score,” Jol said in April 2018. “I wanted to take away that pressure. The stupid thing is, at training he banged balls in the top corner without a care. In midfield he was sensational, the one with the ideas, the passing ability but also the best ball-winner.
“There is hardly a midfielder who can and dares to beat opponents in midfield like he does. Maybe Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal but Mous can do it better, smoother.”
Jol hadn’t yet discovered Dembele at his peak – the one with Pochettino mojo – as his transformation was far from complete at Fulham. Three years into his Tottenham career, he was commonly described as an enigma; a player whose talents were greatly appreciated by his colleagues but, through the lack of an end product in attacking positions, one who irritated fans. His series of niggling injuries were further encouragement for Spurs to cut their losses and deposit him in the northeast.
Thankfully, Pochettino persevered with Dembele. In his late 20s, Dembele eventually found a home operating as the platform in midfield.
He wasn’t a player with Michael Brown bump or Wilson Palacios punch in this position. He was different. He had the creativity of a classic No. 10, albeit while unhurriedly gliding in some kind of snug force field. A subtle hip swivel or sly dip of the shoulder would see him evade opponents by a few excruciating inches, all while seeming to hover off the turf.
His movement was both methodical and purposeful. He would proudly sail into the attacking third like an ocean liner returning from a maiden voyage. If not, he would push deliveries to the toes of teammates, who, through his work, were often in generous pockets from which they could unpeel defenses.
“The reason (Christian) Eriksen is able to find the amount of space he does in those areas is purely and simply down to the amount of players Dembele draws towards him with his dribbling ability – he can hold on to the ball while taking two or three opposition players out of the game,” former Spurs colleague Jermaine Jenas said in February 2018, soon after a 2-2 draw with Juventus that proved to be one of Dembele’s final few bewitching displays.
Jenas added: “Dembele is like a vacuum – he just sucks in all the pressure and then releases the ball at the perfect time.”
Injuries caught up with Dembele, leaving Pochettino a huge void in his midfield and marking a significant loss for the Premier League. A player so unique that it took over a decade of professional football to find his position, and when he did find his role, he was among a select few who redefined what is expected from a No. 6. That position is an attacking springboard, not just where defenses are protected and passes are kept simple.
And the casualty could have been so much earlier. Dembele could have been one of the many tragicomic characters in the Netflix docuseries on Sunderland’s calamitous 2017-18 season. Television’s loss is football’s gain.