This summer was always going to be a transitional one for Tottenham Hotspur, though generally for good reasons rather than bad.
With the move to the club’s new stadium imminent, Spurs are ready to make the leap to the big time and are preparing accordingly by looking to secure the futures of their best talents.
While star men such as Harry Kane and Davinson Sanchez have been tied down to new contracts, one equally essential Spurs player looks set to be moved on, missing out on seeing the club step into a new era. That man is none other than Mousa Dembele, who has been strongly linked with a move abroad.
Since arriving in north London from Fulham in 2012, Dembele has played a pivotal role in helping Spurs become one of the Premier League’s powerhouse teams, proving himself indispensable to Mauricio Pochettino and Andre Villas-Boas before him.
The Belgian offers something in midfield that no other player can, bringing a unique combination of skills to the table which make him one of European football’s most exceptional talents.
Though persistent injuries and a lack of end product meant Dembele often flew under the radar at Spurs, fans of the club will count themselves lucky to have witnessed the man in his prime, knowing that they were watching one of the most skilful players of his generation.
Dembele’s mixture of physical presence and exceptional dribbling is an unusual one but incredibly easy on the eye, at once bulldozing midfields and dancing through them like a ballerina.
He has all the attributes of a midfield destroyer, while somehow remaining one of the most graceful players you will ever have the pleasure of watching.
Although Dembele has offered little by way of goals and assists during his time at Spurs – notching just 10 strikes in 232 appearances – he has been utterly essential to the way Pochettino’s side plays ever since the Argentine manager first came to the club in 2014.
With his unbelievable ball retention and strength, the midfielder is able to win the ball and draw in two or more opposition players at once, creating space for his teammates before releasing the ball.
Tottenham’s Champions League clash with Juventus in Turin back in February showcased Dembele at his unstoppable best. Time and time again the Belgian danced past Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic as though they weren’t there, starting almost every attack for Spurs as they clawed their way back into the game from 2-0 down.
The match came at a time when many Spurs supporters thought Dembele was finished, having watched him struggle to reach full match fitness all season. As his performance that night showed, Dembele had other ideas.
However, as Dembele approaches his 31st birthday, it would seem that time is finally beginning to catch up to him. Plagued by injuries for the majority of his Spurs career, the midfielder seems to spend less time playing to his full potential with every passing season, offering bursts of unparalleled brilliance followed by poor runs of form where his lack of fitness is clearly visible.
Dembele was a passenger in Tottenham’s FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United in April, played off the park by the younger and fitter Paul Pogba in a one-sided midfield battle.
Selling Dembele this summer makes sense from a financial point of view, with the player’s influence and value likely to decrease with each passing year from this point onwards. Yet even if Spurs had £100m to spend on a new midfielder, they would find themselves struggling to replace Dembele.
He is simply a one-of-a-kind footballer; not in the sense of being the best in the world, but in the sense that no other footballer possesses the same combination of skills and attributes that he does.
Throughout his career, colleagues ranging from teammate Dele Alli to former manager Martin Jol have labelled Dembele one of the most talented players they have ever seen in action.
Pochettino went as far as to name Dembele as one of the five ‘special’ players he had worked with as a player or manager – given the countless illustrious names to have played for or with the Spurs manager over the years, these comments say a great deal about the way the player is viewed by those within the game.
Spurs now face the problem of trying to fill Dembele’s place in the starting XI with a player who will not be able to fill his shoes. Should they sign another midfield destroyer, they will miss Dembele’s ability to bring the ball from defence into attack. Should they sign a more creative central midfielder, they will still lose the stability Dembele offers by sitting in front of Spurs’ back line.
While replacing Dembele presents a practical conundrum for Spurs, this pales in comparison to what his departure will mean for the club in an emotional sense. Though he has the potential to be frustrating at times, Dembele is a player like no other and has earned his place in the hearts of the Spurs faithful just as much as the likes of Kane, Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen.
Should Dembele leave the club this summer, Spurs fans will be saying goodbye to a definitive player who helped kick-start one of the best eras in the club’s history – and you can’t put a price on that.