By Liam Twomey
With Luka Modric presumably house-hunting in Madrid and Chelsea and Manchester United still putting faith in the aging duo of Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes to keep things ticking over in the centre of the pitch, at least three of England’s biggest clubs are likely to conduct a quiet evaluation of their midfield options before Friday’s transfer deadline.
No surprise, then, that the name Moussa Dembele is doing the rounds. In just two years, the unflappable Belgian has transformed himself from just another Eredivisie import to the toast of Europe’s elite.
United boss Sir Alex Ferguson is believed to be keen. Tottenham have identified him as a top candidate to replace the departed Modric. Spanish daily newspaper Marca even reported that Real Madrid dubbed him their ‘Plan B’ if a deal with Spurs for the Croat failed to materialise.
That Dembele is the subject of such flattering speculation is remarkable in itself. But his burgeoning reputation as one of the most promising central midfield talents in Europe is all the more astonishing for the fact that it is a position he has played professionally for less than a year.
When he arrived at Craven Cottage two years ago for a fee of £5 million from AZ Alkmaar he did so as a virtual unknown to all those not well acquainted with the Eredivisie. Many Fulham fans and neutrals voiced their misgivings about the club paying so much for a player unproven in a top league.
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The crafty Belgian scored 10 goals that season, playing in the deep-lying striker role which he had made his own. Effortlessly drifting into space, ghosting past defenders and shooting with venom, he was hard to pick up and harder to stop.
It was this position he adopted at Fulham under Mark Hughes, and his qualities were immediately obvious to the cultured and passionate home support. Niggling injuries, however, combined with a paltry return of just three league goals, somewhat tempered their praise.
For such an attack-minded player, it is curious that scoring should be the one underwhelming area in Dembele's game, yet underwhelming it is - only twice in in seven seasons as a professional has he reached double figures for league goals.
This apparent lack of a goal threat, when viewed within the context of the rest of his unique skill-set, may reasonably be interpreted as a significant reason why, when Martin Jol arrived from Ajax at the start of last season to replace Hughes, he quickly formed in his mind the idea of Dembele the midfielder.
The Dutchman’s experiment, actioned partly in response to a disappointing start to the campaign for the Cottagers, yielded fairly immediate dividends. With the Belgian now patrolling a deeper area in the centre of the pitch, Jol’s men gained momentum after Christmas, eventually finishing ninth.
Dembele’s strength, ball retention and superb awareness afforded his team-mates a new level of control in midfield, while his direct running and uncanny ability to go past his man enhanced their threat on the counter-attack, creating more chances for the likes of Clint Dempsey and Bryan Ruiz.
At the same time, his tenacity, discipline and effectiveness in the tackle ensured he could be utilised in a midfield four without being considered a defensive liability. If not for Dembele, it is very unlikely Jol would have parted with veteran midfield metronome Danny Murphy quite so easily this summer.
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Yet over the past 18 months he has matured into arguably the most accomplished player in the Premier League plying their trade outside the top six, and he would grace any of their squads.
Fulham and Jol are determined not to part with their star man, but he knows he is ultimately destined for a bigger stage.
"Personally, I would like to go to the top,” Dembele told Sport 1. “I think every player wants that. But I have the confidence to say that I want to play at a top club one day.”
Depending on the powers that be in the corridors of White Hart Lane and Old Trafford, that day might prove to be very soon indeed.
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