Eric Devin takes a deeper look at one of France’s stars during their U19 European Championship which ended at the semi-final stage against Spain: Fulham’s Moussa Dembélé.
Having celebrated his nineteenth birthday last Sunday with a fine goal and what was arguably a man of the match performance to cap France’s Under-19 UEFA Championship group stage participation, Fulham’s Moussa Dembele added yet another line to a resume already studded with impressive achievements. In the three years since his surprise arrival from Paris Saint-Germain, the striker has failed to make much of a dent in the senior squad at Craven Cottage.
As a result, many may not be aware of the youngster and his accomplishments, Fulham’s relegation certainly doing little to aid things in that regard. With France having Thursday succumbed to a pair of late goals from Spain & Real Madrid’s Mario Asensio, this seems as opportune time as any to flesh out the youngster’s back story and development, as well as to give some sort of indication as to the level of progress that can be expected from him.
Signed in July of 2012 from Paris Saint-Germain’s academy, Dembele was lightly regarded by the English press at the time, a combination of having arrived at the same time as the departure of his namesake, the Belgian and currently Tottenham Hotspur midfielder. Having been with the capital side since the age of eight and a consistent inclusion with the U-16 national side, the player had some reputation domestically, but the departures of the likes of Clint Dempsey and Dembele were part of what some saw as a fire sale on the club’s part, off-loading salable assets in a series of financially motivated moves.
Despite Dembele’s promise, Premier League survival was the primary focus for most fans, and with the following season’s relegation the promise of a teenager held little allure.
Despite the lack of attention, Dembele started out his first season at Fulham like a house on fire, netting 16 times in 19 matches for the club’s U-18 side, despite suffering a thigh injury which kept him sidelined for long periods. By the end of the 2012-13 season, Fulham had captured the U-18 Premier League title, and Dembele, still just 16, had even been afforded a few inclusions in the U-21 side, although the senior side was still another matter.
That July, he signed his first professional contract with the club, a two-year deal which ran until the present summer, an agreement which has since been extended until 2016.
The following season was Fulham’s swansong in the Premier League, and while Dembele did earn a few cameos with the senior side, he failed to make an impact at that level. Despite this, the striker proved impressive once again for the Cottagers’ youth sides, easily earning promotion to the U-21s, and scoring five goals in his first four matches upon his arrival. Bouncing among the three sides for the duration of the season, Dembele proved a bright spot, but for the casual fan, the club’s lackadaisical performances in the Premier League were a more pressing concern.
With the club’s subsequent relegation and indeed struggles in the Championship this year, the player was given short shrift as first Felix Magath and then his successor Kit Symons rarely included him in the senior club, despite his performances at youth level. Both instead preferred to rely on more veteran attacking players such as Hugo Rodallega, Bryan Ruiz and record signing Ross McCormack. With a relegation scrap underway, not much more could have been expected from the club’s management, especially with England U-21 Cauley Woodrow likewise ahead of Dembele in the club’s pecking order.
Persevering nonetheless, Dembele scored a smart brace in a League Cup loss to Derby County and became, in the course of the last year, a more consistent member of Patrick Gonfalone’s U-19 side in the process. Indeed, it is perhaps at international level that Dembele’s performances have demonstrated the most marked improvement. Positionally, Dembele can operate either as a left winger or as a traditional striker, his combination of size, pace and ability with the ball at his feet making him an Alexandre Lacazette-like presence who can torment defences in an number of ways.
While the comparison to Ligue 1’s reigning scoring champion may seem a reach given Dembele’s record and position to date, the Lyon player was likewise often shuttled to the wing with more veteran strikers in the side, biding his time until the proper opportunity arose. While Lacazette is more of an instinctive finisher, preferring to get at players with the ball at his feet, using his strength and craft to move past them, Dembele can also operate as more of a target man, his aerial prowess exceeding that of the OL man.
Heading into the U-19 European Championships, however, Dembele’s goals for Fulham’s youth teams meant little, as the likes of Maxwell Cornet, Kingsley Coman and Sehrou Guirassy were receiving much more first team experience at the senior level for their clubs, and were given precedence by Gonfalone.
However, with fellow forward Ulrich Nnomo unable to make the trip to Greece due to injury, Dembele was afforded the opportunity. Left out of the starting eleven in the first group stage match against Austria, Dembele instead was left to making an appearance off the bench. However, when Kingsley Coman had to come off against the Ukraine in the second group stage game, Dembele came on and scored, his goal restoring France’s advantage shortly after Ukraine’s equalizer.
Having won both of their first two matches, assuring first place in the group, Gonfalone gave Dembele the start in the last match, against the hosts in Katerini. Despite only scoring once, Dembele was easily the game’s best player, slicing apart Greece’s back line at will, combining with Samed Kilic and Neal Maupay to devastating effect. With Dembele’s pace and ability with the ball at his feet, he readily showed the multivalency of his talent with his goal, an acrobatic sliding finish from Maupay.
Unlucky not to have added to his single tally, the drive with which Dembele played in a match that had no bearing on his team’s placement was impressive indeed, and France were eager to continue their fine group stage displays against a higher caliber of opposition in the next round
While a healthy Coman rightly reclaimed his place in the semi-final against Spain, playing alongside Guirassy and Cornet, who had been rested against Greece, Dembele was again afforded a chance from the bench with the match still scoreless. Failing to impress as a late brace from Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio saw the Spaniards through, Dembele is still far from the finished article.
The motor that he had showed in the previous match was not in evidence, a much more experienced Spanish defense easily shackling France’s attack and leaving Dembele and his teammates frustrated.
That said, if he can consistently figure with Fulham’s senior squad this season, establishing a rapport with his fellow attackers after bouncing between the senior side and the U-21s last season, there is every chance he could be one of the season’s revelations.
With the likes of Patrick Roberts, Hugo Rodallega and Bryan Ruiz having moved on, there will be considerably more opportunities for Dembele, and should he, like his international teammates, be given more of a chance at senior level this season, it is all but inevitable that his development will continue apace.
The goals for Dembele should be to continue to grow with France, making the squad for next year’s Toulon Tournament and maybe figuring as the U-21s try to qualify for 2017’s championship. If he can continue to progress for club and country, the flashes of brilliance displayed in Greece may be only the beginning. While the Championship can get lost in the shuffle in terms of the world of football, especially away from England, one would be well advised to keep an eye on Fulham’s results and the performances of their promising young Frenchman, as we may be seeing the naissance of yet another dynamic French attacker.