When Fulham made an early-season trip to Old Trafford last August, Mousa Dembele took on Manchester United with a cavalier spirit that made him the standout midfielder in the match. I was there that day and it's no exaggeration to say Dembele's performance evoked Patrick Vieira in his prime.
Dembele's driving runs at United's core were invigorating, his passing incisive and his work ethic ferocious.
United won 3-2, with Robin van Persie scoring his first goal for the club, but the Dutchman's plaudits were shared with those for the rampaging Dembele. United fans wanted to sign him and it was easy to see why—here was a central player driven with a purpose and natural forward momentum they'd lacked the previous season.
Manchester City had Yaya Toure. United didn't.
United were reportedly interested but they didn't get their man. Tottenham stumped up £15 million and Dembele joined the Andre Villas-Boas revolution at White Hart Lane instead—signing a five-year deal in a move financed in part by the sale of Luka Modric to Real Madrid.
Out went a lightweight pass-and-move specialist; in came an all-action midfield warrior. Read into that what you will, but whatever happens from here for Villas-Boas at Spurs, it's already clear Dembele was the smartest of acquisitions and a decision that has made Spurs a considerably more formidable opponent.
Dembele is being used as a holding midfielder. Villas-Boas plays a 4-2-3-1 and initially found success partnering the Belgian with a Brazilian, Sandro, at its midfield pivot. "Sandro is a reliable, efficient holding player; Dembele an all-round attacking midfield threat," wrote Michael Cox for ESPN FC in January.
With Sandro out until the summer, his role has now befallen Scott Parker.
To illustrate Dembele's generous contribution, here's a heat map of his activity in Spurs' recent 2-1 win against Newcastle, courtesy of Squawka.
Dembele's forward influence for Spurs can also be seen in his passing stats. The 25-year-old has made 323 passes in the final third this season, of which 88.85 percent have reached their intended target. That's the highest success rate for any player in the Premier League to have attempted over 300 passes in advanced areas.
He's also a successful ball-carrier. Dembele has beaten players 39 times this season, compared to Yaya Toure's count of 27. An average of 2.1 successful dribbles puts Dembele inside the Premier League top 10 and just behind his teammate Gareth Bale (whoscored.com). According to Squawka, he beats his man 64 percent of the time.
Dembele also compares favorably to Yaya Toure in a number of defensive categories. Toure has had more game time by over 500 minutes, but Dembele has made more tackles (57 to 26) and achieved a greater success with them—winning 80.7 percent vs. Toure's 76.93 percent. He's also made 34 interceptions to Toure's 24, a category led by his midfield partner Sandro.
The one area that still needs work is Dembele's goal threat. His dramatic Europa League winner for Spurs against Lyon last week was just his second goal for Spurs, and, as Villas-Boas told reporters after the game, Dembele should be contributing more often based on the attributes at his disposal and the advanced positions he gets himself into:
It was an important goal for him. It's something he recognises that he has to do more often and this time, he got his reward. It's important for his self-confidence and it was a great goal to put us through.
Maybe his fine strike against Lyon will be a catalyst. Based on the 10 goals in 20 starts he scored for AZ Alkmaar in the 2008-09 season, Dembele is certainly capable of contributing from midfield, but he'll need to be more selfish. He's only mustered 13 attempts in the Premier League this season compared to Toure's 38.
Even without producing goals on a regular basis Dembele is already looking like Tottenham's second-most influential player behind Bale. He gives them dramatically improved mobility and puts Villas-Boas' team on the front foot every time he takes possesion, while also adding a steel at its core.
The early signs suggest Spurs may very well have found their answer to Arsenal's Patrick Vieira. What better stage than a North London derby for Dembele to justify the lofty comparison.
All stats provided by EPLIndex unless otherwise noted