Damn, I Really Miss Mousa Dembele, Too
An ode to the under-heralded former superstar
Thanks to everyone who donated! For the unaware, if you donate to one of the charities mentioned here, I will write something for you. I already have to write many things for many of you; the response so far has been incredible. We’ve raised over $3,000 already! So, I’m gonna start off by fulfilling the request of a reader named Joe. His buddy, a bartender in New York, just got laid off. They’re both Spurs fans and Joe’s friend is a huge Mousa Dembele fan. This was a sweet, personal request. And so, here is a a piece about Mousa Dembele
Mousa Dembele would’ve been pretty good in the cage, huh? After devoting the past week of quarantine to writing about a fictional 3v3 soccer tournament that took place inside of a chain-link cube inside the hull of a cargo ship, it’s possible that my brain still needs to recalibrate itself to reality. The last live soccer game I watched was Liverpool’s loss to Atletico Madrid. I’ve watched plenty of games since -- shoutout Footballia, which, according to multiple people, is struggling for latency with its newfound traffic bounce -- but these are all matches from the past, when all kinds of in-game inefficiencies were left unexploited. Whether it’s the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2004, the Champions League in 2005, whatever -- everyone just seemed way less concerned with controlling a game.
This led me to wonder just how good Edgar Davids might’ve been were he playing today, and now I can’t stop thinking about how great Mousa Dembele might’ve been had he played back then, on the ship. He absolutely would’ve been chosen for the Secret Tournament and he never would’ve lost the ball; he was -- and still is -- so cool.
Ironically enough, the idea of “cool” extends all the way back to Daniel Defoe’s first novel, A Journal of the Plague Year. As he wrote, 300 years ago, “The Weather was temperate, variable and cool enough.” William Sheakspeare also used the word in a Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet. As Mike Vuolo wrote for Slate a couple years ago, The Bard Himself began to advance the usage of the term:
By the 16th century, cool had fully evolved from an adjective of the atmosphere around us to one of the attributes within, suggesting deliberation, rationality, and calmness. It wasn’t long before the word began attaching itself to all manner of idiom, cementing its metaphorical turn. A “cool hand” reaches out from more than three centuries ago, a “cool customer” gains purchase, and we’re all kindly asked to “keep cool.”
Since then, of course, coolness has taken on a new, arbitrary, more ineffable meaning -- as Vuolo put it, “an alluring mix of style, hipness, poise, and who knows what else”. I’ve aged into my 30s, I’m typing this from a standing desk, I’ve shaved my facial hair into a mustache because I’m bored; I can’t speak with authority on what is and is not cool. I don’t understand wide-legged pants or folded up beanies; what is going on there? I like Everlane and still frequent J Crew. John Mayer is ... cool now? Help! However, I do know that in terms of rationality, in terms of calmness, there’s never been anyone cooler than Mousa Dembele.
Take these highlights, from a game against Manchester United during the 2017-18 season. As far as I’m aware, this is the only soccer-highlight package ever created using a lyric-free jazz beat and not something by a person named Aux-Nectar:
He’s rarely, if ever, out of control -- all shimmies, hip fakes, and blind turns. There’s this coaching truism -- let the ball do the work -- but Dembele does the opposite; his body does all the work. He’s always hunched over, but above the waist, he barely moves. People would joke about Andrea Pirlo being able to hold a glass of wine in his hand while he played, thanks to his smart positioning and long-range passing. Dembele could do it, too, and he’d be dribbling through the opposition press at the top of his own box or through the heart of the other team’s midfield. He manages to make the riskiest action on the field -- a dribble -- look like a foregone conclusion.
At the site Smarterscout -- created by Dan Altman, former senior advisor at Swansea City and DC United -- they calculate a metric called “ball retention”, which shows how likely a team is to retain possession when a certain player touches the ball. The number is standardized by position and league and then awarded a percentile ranking. In Dembele’s last two full seasons at Tottenham, he was in the 90th and 88th percentile for ball retention. In both years, he was in the 99th percentile for dribbling -- again, standardized by position. Among players with at least 1,200 minutes in the Big Five Leagues since 2016-17, only three other players -- City’s Aymeric Laporte last season, Juan Bernat with Bayern Munich in 16-17, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek with Crystal Palace in 17-18 -- hit the 88th and 99th percentile markers. Dembele, of course, did it twice, and he’s the only central midfielder on the list. (RLC played out wide for Palace.)
For most of his career, Dembele’s managers couldn’t resist playing him high up the field, and with that tight-space control and gyroscopic turning radius and down-hill dribbling, how could you not? But once Mauricio Pochettino came to Tottenham and gave up on the Nabil Bentaleb-Ryan Mason experiment, Dembele became one of the most dominant midfielders in the world. From a fantastic piece by Grace Robertson at Statsbomb:
Dembélé in this role defined press-resistance. It became nearly impossible to win the ball from him, so comfortable was he at shirking attempts to challenge him, maintaining calm at all times under pressure. His combination of technique and physical attributes made him perhaps essentially impossible to press out of the game in his peak years. He evoked Guardiola’s claim that Xavi “couldn’t lose the ball”, but in an entirely different way ... The controller was reborn, now as a player who could dictate the game by withstanding opposition pressure and moving the ball forward nonetheless.
I think the game looked so easy for Dembele because he could do it all. That hunched-over gait gave him balance that other tall players -- he’s north of 6 feet -- couldn’t access. Yet, he had longer legs than any of the other smaller, low-center-of-gravity types, which allowed him to cover more ground and control a larger radius of space, which you can see in all the sideward shifts of the ball before he sets off on a run. Plus, he was thick -- 183 pounds ... thicc? -- and he was a master of blind spots. The signature Dembele move was the sudden, 180-degree turn with the outside of the foot -- just one touch to flip the field on its head.
I also think that it’s probably not a coincidence that Totteham’s recent struggles pretty much directly coincide with Dembele’s decline and departure. Smarterscout also gives players a rating based on how likely they are to win a ground duel -- essentially, a tackle or a dribble -- based on how they perform in duels against specific players. (In other words, losing a duel to a low-rated player is gonna negatively affect your rating more than winning that same duel would positively affect your rating.) Dembele’s in the 85th percentile for ground duels when he has the ball and the 93rd percentile when he doesn’t.
The site also has a metric called “defending quality”, which, like “ball retention”, is standardized by position and league. It takes into account how much a player’s defensive actions reduce the likelihood of a goal being allowed; Dembele rated in the 85th percentile in 16-17 and the 82nd percentile the following year. The only other Big Five seasons to rate in the 80th percentile or higher for ball retention, defensive quality, and both sides of the ground duel: Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara last year and this year, Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets this season, and that aforementioned Loftus-Cheek year at Crystal Palace.
Without a player that never lost the ball, always won it back, and pushed it up the field, it’s no surprise that Spurs have suffered. They haven’t replaced him because he offered an irreplaceable profile. After back-to-back-to-back top-three finishes, they fell down to fourth last season, but despite qualification and a run to the Champions League final, a deeper decline had already begun. Their xG differential, per FBRef, was sixth-best in the league. This season, by that same metric, they’re down in 11th. Dembele, meanwhile, only played around 500 minutes in the league last season before being sold to Guangzhou R&F in China last January.
In limited minutes last year, Dembele dropped off in just about every quantifiable aspect. He turns 33 in July, and despite how easy it always looked at him, the physicality of his game did always seem especially vulnerable to the whims of aging. He hasn’t played a game since November, and who knows when the next one will be. But during those three seasons with Spurs, there really wasn’t anyone better, or cooler.