Football is becoming increasingly universal when it comes to tactics: the best defenders can start attacks; top-level attackers are expected to defend. Classic number tens have declined in popularity, but then so have traditional wingers -- there are more multi-faceted, versatile players.
Because of the convergence of player styles, it's rare that a player's unusual technique grabs your attention. When witnessing a talented player for the first time, you can generally crudely compare him to a more established player; Argentina has had plenty of "new Maradonas" -- primarily because of the overwhelming desire to create another superstar in his mould, something eventually achieved with the ascent of Lionel Messi into the world's greatest player, but also because it's easy. Why spend a minute explaining a player's characteristics when you can accurately summarise it with a quick comparison?
There are few players with no obvious template, but Tottenham's Mousa Dembele is a unique player. Or rather, he is nowadays, in his current guise as a roaming central midfielder. As a forward, he was an identikit fast, tricky but inconsistent attacker; Holland, where Dembele moved at 18, is excellent at producing these players. As a midfielder, he's an entirely different beast, which is the odd thing about him -- in theory, he's the epitome of universality as a talented all-rounder, yet in another sense he's a gloriously distinctive individual with no obvious contemporary.
Dembele was a forward at AZ Alkmaar, sometimes central, sometimes wide. He deputised in midfield on a couple of occasions, but this didn't appear to be a realistic long-term plan. In his debut Premier League campaign under Mark Hughes at Fulham, Dembele started the season on fire: two assists on his full debut against Blackpool, two goals in his first start at Craven Cottage against Wolves. Soon after, he suffered injuries, first following a horrific challenge by Stoke's Andy Wilkinson, then a more serious knee problem that kept him out for two months. Slightly unfit, he spent the second half of 2010-11 playing promising but ultimately underwhelming football, as the central creator in a 4-2-3-1.
The next season, under Martin Jol, Dembele was initially shunted around the pitch, sometimes up front alone, often just behind the main striker, occasionally out on the wing. The Belgian never found his true position -- his finishing was erratic, his passes were often misplaced, but he was always heavily involved.
Then, on Boxing Day last year, something surprising happened. Despite having Dickson Etuhu, Steve Sidwell and Chris Baird available to play in the centre of midfield, Jol decided to use Dembele there. When a journalist well-connected to Fulham predicted the positional switch on Twitter that morning, he was castigated for what appeared to be a bizarre misinterpretation of the formation. But, astonishingly, he turned out to be correct; not only was Dembele in the centre of midfield, he was playing alongside Danny Murphy, a talented passer who lacks mobility and tackling ability. Fulham were playing without anything like a defensive midfielder away at Chelsea -- in a local derby, against an attack-minded side.
Dembele was a revelation in the centre of the pitch. He won more tackles than any other player, and was also the most prolific dribbler -- in tight, central positions. That has become his trademark: tough tackling combined with direct running on the ball -- what other player can boast those two attributes at their main qualities? For the remainder of the season, Jol fielded the Belgian in that deep role, in combination with two wingers and two forwards, so Fulham were playing with five attackers, and were as aesthetically pleasing as any club in England.
As interest from the likes of Real Madrid gathered steam, Fulham were always unlikely to keep him at Craven Cottage. Eventually, Dembele and Clint Dempsey both departed for Tottenham, and while Fulham signed Dimitar Berbatov and Mladan Petric to replace Dempsey, who on earth could replace Dembele?
"Dembele is probably the best player on the ball I've ever seen, and we lost him," admitted Jol. "So we needed to give ourselves a new identity."
That second part of his pronouncement is telling: Dembele was the heartbeat of the side, and rather than trying to replace him, Fulham simply changed their style of play. Now they play with two traditional holding players, with Murphy released in the summer. Steve Sidwell, Chris Baird or Mahamadou Diarra sit deep, and four players attack. Fulham are still entertaining, and have scored more goals than any side apart from Manchester United and Chelsea this season. But without Dembele, they're a different side.
"He's one of the best midfielders I've played against in this league," said Norwich's Bradley Johnson after Dembele's debut. "He only came on at half-time and he's changed the game for them." The Belgian’s impact was clear from the start.
Tottenham's stylistic change under Andre Villas-Boas is epitomised by replacing Luka Modric with Dembele. Modric was perfect for a Harry Redknapp side based around traditional wingers either side of a midfield four: The Croatian would receive the ball, spread the play quickly to the flanks and skip forward to link the play higher up the pitch. Dembele is different; he's a more forceful, direct player who dribbles towards goal himself, showcased most effectively in the famous win at Old Trafford in September.
His versatility and energy are also crucial for Tottenham's rotation of positions. Dembele starts as the "middle" player in a trio, but can either drop deeper and allow Sandro forward, or he can charge forward ahead of Tottenham's most attacking midfielder. Many versatile players become reliable utility men, but Dembele is already Tottenham's key player. They've won all four of the Premier League games he's started, but have triumphed just once in the six matches he's missed.
His continued absence with a hip injury could become a serious problem for Tottenham; Tom Huddlestone is a fine long-range passer but lacks Dembele's mobility, so Spurs are weaker in terms of movement, directness and even ball-winning. Ahead of their toughest back-to-back fixtures of the season, away at Manchester City and then Arsenal, and potentially without Sandro through injury, Spurs need Dembele to return as soon as possible.
The Belgian's unusual skill set appears to be irreplaceable -- like his old coach Jol admitted, when you lose Dembele, you seem to lose all sense of identity and purpose.