Mousa Dembele’s Premier League career, much like former club Tottenham, has a sense of ‘what if’ clouding the narrative as he completes his move to the Chinese Super League. There’s an inescapable feeling that while he did make a resounding impression in his eight-and-a-half-year stay in England, there’s more he could have done. Another achievable level that was both tangible, yet so intangible in his dichotomous career. For Dembele was one of the greatest technical players ever to grace the Premier League, yet his legacy may not read as such.
Mauricio Pochettino has consistently maintained that Dembele is “a genius.” One of the few he’s encountered in his own career, putting the Belgian on a pedestal typically reserved for the elite one per cent. For Pochettino that means Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Jay-Jay Okocha and Ivan de la Pena. And then there’s Dembele.
Any Tottenham team-mate, too, when asked about the most difficult player to train against answers without hesitation. Dembele, again. An association so permanently etched into their subconscious – think night and day, time and space, Dembele and difficulty – through envy, fear or awe.
Dembele does have a mesmeric grace to his game, quickly switching defence to attack and ably gliding past opponents with the physicality of a defender, but all the technical class and guile of a five-a-side player who knows he’s too good for his level.
One of the game’s most press-resistant players boasting an unbreakable bond between ball and foot. It’s not so much glued to his feet, rather welded. A harmonious whole that meant he posted the best dribble success rate in the Premier League since joining Spurs, while failing to be dispossessed by an opponent from March to September of 2016.
Nonetheless, you cannot shirk that nagging feeling. That thin veil of regret shrouding what could have been an even more spectacular career. Like someone unfailingly trying to get your attention by poking you in the arm. The end only comes if you confront it.
This is because Dembele has suffered more than his fair share of injuries, failing to appear since November with an ankle problem and sidelined for 96 days in total this season. Question marks will always linger over his fitness despite Dembele’s better understanding of his own body and the essential work of the Spurs medical team. Signs of physical decline have been prevalent for some time.
Pochettino begrudgingly caveated his “genius” comments with his biggest regret. That being not getting his hands on a raw Dembele aged 18 or 19 and turning him into one of the world’s best. A possibility that inevitably sends the mind wondering, but let that not become Dembele’s lasting legacy. One of unfulfilled potential and regrets. Rather remember the Belgian for his individuality, the Premier League’s most unique player. Remember him for the ease with which he ghosted past opponents at his peak. Remember him as the player that always left us wanting more. Hopefully China can get even the smallest of samples.