Daniel Levy is a notoriously shrewd operator. When Real Madrid reportedly identified Mauricio Pochettino as their number one target to succeed Zinedine Zidane earlier this summer, it was apparently the thought of having to haggle with the Tottenham Hotspur chief that threw Florentino Pérez off the scent.
His reputation precedes him.
But Levy’s decision not to offer Mousa Dembélé a new contract at Spurs is a curious one. The Belgian is an integral part of Pochettino’s side, the beating heart of their midfield, yet at 31 years old it has been deemed that now is the time to cash in. Most recently, Inter Milan are reported to be leading the chase for his signature.
Is this a wise move by Spurs? This is, after all, a player compared by Pochettino to Diego Maradona and Ronaldinho. That’s how highly he is rated by the Argentine coach.
“I can talk about [Dembélé] because I know very well him after nearly four years,” he explained earlier in the year. “I have told you – and some people use my word to describe him – he is a genius of football. He is this type of player I put next to Ronaldinho, Maradona, [Jay-Jay] Okocha – players that I was lucky to play with. For me, he is one of the unbelievable talents in the history of football.”
Embarrassment of midfield riches
But do any of these players really have the presence of Dembélé? How will Spurs compensate for his energy and composure on the ball?
In Dier and Winks, Spurs have two players who provide them with an extremely effective passing platform – Dier averaged 61.72 accurate passes per 90 minutes, while Winks averaged 67.47 per 90 minutes. Both players are relatively safe in the way they play the game, though, illustrated by Winks’ average of 12.6 backward passes per 90 minutes.
Dembélé, on the other hand, only averaged 8.26 backward passes per 90 minutes, also averaging 62.66 accurate passes per 90 minutes. He too is careful in possession, completing 85.2 per cent of his total passes per 90 minutes, but the Belgian is much more of a driving force than both Dier and Winks, averaging 3.29 successful take-ons per 90 minutes.
That is a greater average than even Sissoko, who only averages 1.16 successful take-ons per 90 minutes. The Frenchman is more of a final third threat than Dembélé, but the statistics, at least in terms of his ability in bursting past opponents. In fact, Wanyama is closer to Dembélé in this regard, averaging 2.03 successful take-ons per 90 minutes.
While Wanyama has primarily been used as an anchor during his time at Spurs, there is a precedent for him to become more of a number eight. At Celtic, the Kenyan was used on occasion in a more advanced position. It’s possible that Wanyama could be given more freedom to venture forward, to drive the ball up the pitch, should Dembélé be sold this summer.
There’s an art to the sale of key figures in football. Sir Alex Ferguson was among the best at it, as demonstrated by the way he forced out players like Ruud Van Nistelrooy, David Beckham and Roy Keane among others.
At the time, these departures were controversial, they appeared misguided, but the Scot had a knack for telling when a player was on the decline. He knew when to cash in. Levy, presumably in conjunction with Pochettino, is attempting to make the same sort of call on Dembélé this summer.
Who should replace the burly Belgian?
While the likes of Dier, Sissoko, Wanyama and Winks will give Spurs options in midfield, it’s possible that they could move for a direct replacement for Dembélé. Jack Grealish’s name has been mentioned, although his signing would surely be one made with an eye on the future. Rafinha, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Inter Milan from Barcelona, has also been linked with a move to North London.
Ideally, Mateo Kovačić would be the perfect replacement for Dembélé. Despite breaking into the Real Madrid lineup at times last season, the Croatian has been linked with an exit from the Santiago Bernabeu, reportedly piquing the interest of Spurs. Kovačić would be a big money signing, but if Spurs want to use the departure of Dembélé to grow and improve, he should be at the top of their shortlist.
For years, Spurs have been a selling club. Last summer, they sold Kyle Walker to Manchester City, with Gareth Bale sold to Real Madrid four years before that. This time, the scenario is a little different. Spurs are taking the proactive decision to sell Dembélé. Whether it’s the right call will depend on how they adapt without him next season.