Quite often this season, I’ve watched Tottenham Hotspur play and found myself sitting in admiration of that smooth operator Moussa Dembele. Dembele has this ability to glide over the turf, around would be challengers like they weren’t there. Just like this. He runs with this strangely leggy gait, almost laboured, but can suddenly, with shoulders heaving, burst forward at unexpected speed, accelerating into space. He is an expert at shielding the ball with his body, a skill that requires immense torso strength, something he makes look easy. He is an excellent judge of time and space, knowing just how long he can pause, or just how far to push the ball forward when dribbling. When he is on the ball, looking forward, there is always a sense that he can make something happen, that he can surge over the threshold between aimless possession in the opposition half and legitimate attacking incisiveness. He is often played in a holding role and, being so strong in the tackle, his numbers on the defensive side of things are surely impressive. The first clip in this video is a fine example of this.
He is a cultured and hardened modern midfielder, an asset to any side. He is armed with such potent offensive weapons, as well as shrew defensive nous, and he uses both to make a telling impact on the game at both ends. That’s right. Right? Is this right?…
Well, let’s look at the numbers. In 23 games, at home and in Europe, so far this season, he has 2 goals and 1 assist. He has made on average only 2.1 tackles a game. He averages less than 0.8 of an interception a game this season. Less than 1 shot a game. 1.1 key passes a game. 0.1 blocked shots a game. 0.8 clearances a game.
The numbers are surprisingly unimpressive for a player who has played a lot of games for Spurs this season. Looking quickly at the defensive stats of Etienne Capoue, a summer arrival at White Hart Lane, in his 9 games this year, he has averaged slightly fewer tackles a game (1.9 in the league) but a whopping three times as many interceptions (2.3) and more than double the clearances (2.4) a game. Paulinho, another summer signing, averages twice as many shots a game. He’s also scored 3 goals and assisted 2 others, in fewer appearances. But neither of them has left as positive an impression on me as Dembele has when I’ve watched Tottenham play. Has Moussa Dembele pulled an elaborate con on me? Obviously numbers don’t say everything, but for a defensive midfielder to average nearly zero blocked shots a game is paltry to say the least. Wayne Rooney has averaged more than that this season.
This revelation was startling because I really usually am impressed by Dembele when I see him play; he has a certain irresistible vava-voom about him. I don’t really know if he is so highly touted among others, certainly he cannot have started 23 games this year if he was so obviously overrated. But the reality check spurred me into trying to search for others like Dembele, for more con artists, more unexpectedly ineffective footballers. Most players are either the unappreciated workhorses who impact the match inconspicuously but measurably, or they are the type of player that is immediately impressive and effective and whose stats back that up. But a player who so fully convinces you of their merit at first but who actually contributes a pathetic amount of tangible actions to their team?
Who else has flattered to deceive so successfully in the Premier League? Can anyone reading (if there is anyone) suggest any in the comments?