Finding A (Close) Mousa Dembélé Replacement for Tottenham: Prospect Research and Analysis

Article by Ben Griffis

Ever since Mousa Dembélé started having injury problems at Tottenham and finally left for Guangzhou R&F in January 2019, Spurs’ midfield has had a glaring hole. No player was able to fill in the role Dembélé played for several seasons under Mauricio Pochettino—the player who consistently and effectively brought the ball into the opponent’s half and final third with almost no risk of dispossession before tidily passing to a more creative passer or fullback/winger.

Tottenham put together a highlight video of Dembélé’s unique combination of strength, dribbling, passing, and ball progression.

Since Dembélé left, Spurs have tried to make up for his absence. Tanguy Ndombele was brought in partially to replace Dembélé, but has a lower work rate, is more inconsistent with dribbles, tries risky passes more often, and doesn’t have the strength to fend off markers while dribbling. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp play different roles and while they have great stamina and strength, are not as proficient at carrying as Dembélé. Dele has regressed from his best and is better at off-ball movement than progressing the ball and dribbling, Victor Wanyama’s strength lied in muscling players off the ball than progressing it himself, Christen Eriksen was creative in the final third but needed a player like Dembélé to progress the ball to him, Giovanni Lo Celso was brought in to make up for the loss of Eriksen’s creative passing…

You get the picture. Spurs haven’t been able to find that Dembélé replacement they desperately crave, the player to enable their attack, break opposing low blocks and presses, and consistently move the ball from the deep midfield up to the creative passers and attackers in the final third.

In this article I’ll perform a very rough scouting search for players with similar statistical performance profiles to Dembélé’s final full Tottenham season, 2017/18. The data is from FBRef, and presented as per 90 metrics and percentile rankings. A specific statistic’s percentile rank means that X% of players compared against performed worse. For example, Dembélé’s Tackles & Interceptions/90 of 4.0 is in the 68th percentile. This means that Dembélé was better than 67% of other Premier League midfielders with 1,530+ minutes in 2017/18 (the sample size I’m comparing him against—for finding players for Spurs to sign, I look mainly at 2020/21 and compare players in their own league).

Mousa Dembélé’s Stats

First, let’s take a look at some of Dembélé’s stats from that season (all stats except the % are per 90 minutes)

In these charts, the distributions represent the distribution of all players’ performance in our sample—PL midfielders with 1,530+ minutes in 2017/18 in this case—and the lines are the focal player’s performance (in this case Dembélé).

We can see that Mousa Dembélé was, quite literally, the best midfielder for short, medium, and long pass completion %. Watching him play backs this up, he was always the tidiest passer on the pitch. He also was phenomenal at carrying the ball, dribbling, and progressive passes. These attributes are what Spurs currently lack the most, and are what I’ll focus on when scouting players in this article.

For ease, I’ve put the four key statistics on the bottom row—Progressive Passes, Progressive Carries, Total Carries (all per 90 minutes), and Dribble Success %. The top row are passing metrics, and the middle row is the ability to create shots & goals, as well as one defensive metric, combined tackles and interceptions.

The Search Criteria

Now, what will I define as the criteria for my search? Like I said above, I’ll focus on the bottom row stats—progressive passes, progressive carries, carries, and dribble success %. For an initial search, I’ll see how many, if any, players from 2020/21 ranked in the top 80% for all four of these metrics. And I’ll mention it now: all statistics I discuss will be adjusted for per 90 minutes played, except percentages.

The data comes from FBRef, like I said above. They have high-quality and detailed data on five European leagues, the Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Ligue 1, as well as the MLS. Therefore, only players from these six leagues will be included in my search, so it is by no means an exhaustive search.

Since Dembélé was over the 90th percentile in all four of these stats, my goal is to find someone that gets close to that, or ranks very high in at least three of the four metrics.

Additionally, I’ll only look for players age 26 and younger (as of last season’s end), so that Tottenham would be able to have them in the side for several years for their (most likely) peak years, and so that there’s a possibility to improve. I’ll also consider realistic transfers only, which plays into the age 26 or younger as well, since Spurs rarely sign older players to play first-team roles (Matt Doherty was the last player over 26 transferred in to play a starting/rotation role, before him was Fernando Llorente in 2017). For example, if Frenkie de Jong were to pop up, or an Arsenal player, that’s almost certainly an unrealistic transfer target for Tottenham.

To start the search in each league, I’ll want to see how many players rank at least the 60th percentile in all four stats, then 70th, then 80th, and so on. This method is used so that I can see if there are any potential targets that we could add to a B-list of players to look into if there are no realistic transfers with a similar statistical profile to Dembélé. If a player ranks in the top 20% (80th percentile) for all four focal statistics, I will add them to my A-list of players to take a deeper look at. So let’s dive in.

It’s worth noting that Tottenham bought Pape Matar Sarr from Metz this summer but loaned him back for the season. Sarr is very promising and young, but also very raw. He appears to be versatile across the midfield, but Spurs didn’t buy him as a replacement to play Dembélé’s role. Here’s how his performances last season for Metz ranked:

We can see that he was very solid in many attributes, but wouldn’t be able to play that role that Spurs desperately need. He’ll be a great addition to the midfield for a team that has had midfield depth issues even during Dembélé’s time, but won’t be expected to play in and excel in the tidy-ball-progresser role. Hence, in this article I’m looking for someone new that would be more able to play that role than any of Tottenham’s current players, at the club or on loan.

Premier League

Using code I made in Python with the data set I created from FBRef, here are the players from last season’s Premier League that meet our initial criteria of midfielders with 1530+ minutes played (17 full 90s, just under half the fixtures) and rank at least 60th percentile in all four stats. For this table, we don’t need to see what their ranks are yet. We have more filtering to do.

Player (at least 60th percentile in all 4 stats)SquadAgeNation90s
Dani CeballosArsenal24es ESP17.9
Scott McTominayManchester Utd24sco SCO23.7
Tanguy NdombeleTottenham24fr FRA23.2
Jack GrealishAston Villa25eng ENG24.3
RodriManchester City25es ESP30.5
Andre-Frank Zambo AnguissaFulham25cm CMR28.7

Overall, only one of these players is a realistic transfer (summer) target for Spurs: Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, on loan at Napoli this season after signing a new contract with relegated Fulham. Now let’s see if any of these players rank at least the 70th percentile for all stats.

Player (at least 70th percentile in all 4 stats)SquadAgeNation90s
Dani CeballosArsenal24es ESP17.9
RodriManchester City25es ESP30.5

Since Anguissa doesn’t rank in the top 30% for all four stats, there’s no player from last season’s Premier League Spurs can realistically sign. But, in the spirit of this post, let’s keep going and see if either Ceballos or Rodri rank in the top 20% for all four stats.

Player (at least 80th percentile in all 4 stats)SquadAgeNation90s
Dani CeballosArsenal24es ESP17.9

Dani Ceballos only. Ceballos was on loan at Arsenal last season and back at Real Madrid this season. Not really a realistics transfer unless Spurs shatter their transfer record and wage structure. And for fun, if we don’t care about age, Mateo Kovačić and Thomas Partey (Chelsea and Arsenal respectively) also rank in the top 20% for all four stats, while Kovačić ranks above the 90th percentile for all four, just like Mousa Dembélé. While a perfect replacement for Dembélé, that’s far from realistic.

So, our Premier League search ends with only one somewhat-realistic transfer for next summer, but Anguissa only ranks at least the 60th percentile for all. In fact, his highest-ranking stat of the four was Dribble Success %, at 87%—while great, he would add to Spurs’ midfield but wouldn’t fill Dembélé’s large gap. Let’s move on to Spain’s La Liga and see if anybody there can make Fabio Paratici’s transfer list.

La Liga

Now we move to Spain, and let’s see if any players rank in the 60th percentile or higher for progressive passes, progressive carries, carries, and dribble success %.

Player (>= 60th percentile)SquadAgeNation90s
Martín ZubimendiReal Sociedad22es ESP20.9
Ander GuevaraReal Sociedad24es ESP23.1
Frenkie de JongBarcelona24nl NED35.0
Marco AsensioReal Madrid25es ESP20.8

I think that Martín Zubimendi and Ander Guevara would be the only realistic targets of these four players. de Jong’s wages would be much too high, and Asensio would be very expensive and probably would not want to leave Real for Spurs. So if either Real Sociedad player ranks at least 70th percentile for all four stats, we can continue. Otherwise, we’ll have to end our Spanish search there.

Player (>= 70th percentile)SquadAgeNation90s
Frenkie de JongBarcelona24nl NED35.0

Just Frenkie de Jong. So no realistic Dembélé replacements in Spain. Zubimendi’s highest-ranking stat of the four was progressive passes at 84th percentile (and his passing is all at least 90th percentile), but his progressive carries and carries per 90 are both under the 70th percentile. Still, a top prospect for the future.

Ander Guevara is an interesting case, because he ranks above the 80th percentile for three of these stats (progressive passes, carries, and dribble success %). We’ll keep him in mind for later, but he wouldn’t be an immediate Dembélé replacement (of course, nobody is, but we’re looking for someone statistically close).

Moving on to Germany! Ander Guevara added to the B-list.

Ander Guevara’s stats in La Liga last season. A decent player for the B-list, but wouldn’t begin to fill the Dembélé role for Spurs.

Bundesliga

Germany’s leagues seem to be bursting with young talent, so hopefully we can find at least one player to add to our main list or B list like Guevara.

Player (>= 60th percentile)SquadAgeNation90s
Florian WirtzLeverkusen18de GER24.7
Tyler AdamsRB Leipzig22us USA20.6
Amine HaritSchalke 0424ma MAR23.3
Florian NeuhausM’Gladbach24de GER29.1
Florian GrillitschHoffenheim25at AUT20.9
Joshua KimmichBayern Munich26de GER24.4

Several possible targets there that are top 40% in all four stats. Wirtz would be pricey because he’s so young and so talented already, but Adams, Grillitsch, and Neuhaus could be possible signings. Amine Harit just moved to Marseille this season after Schalke were relegated so he might be a stretch, and of course Kimmich is impossible for any club to sign. Let’s see if anybody ranks in the top 30%:

Player (>= 70th percentile)SquadAgeNation90s
Florian GrillitschHoffenheim25at AUT20.9

Grillitsch is the only player left, and possibly one of the most realistic targets of the initial Bundesliga list. He’s 26 now, by the way. However, he doesn’t rank in the top 20% for all four stats.

But, and this is important, the only stat he doesn’t rank in the top 10% in is Progressive Carries. His 6.0 progressive carries per 90 is in the 79th percentile… That’s very close to 80, so we’ll add Florian Grillitsch to our B-list. He also ranks in the top 10% for medium and long pass completion percentage, so he actually performed very similarly to Dembélé in last season’s Bundesliga.

Grillitsch’s stats in the Bundesliga last season. He’s fairly similar to Dembélé’s stats but with lower short passing and progressive carries rankings. It looks like Grillitsch might be able to play a role similar to Dembélé for Spurs.

Serie A

Player (>=60th percentile)SquadAgeNation90s
Manuel LocatelliSassuolo23it ITA32.0
Gonzalo VillarRoma23es ESP20.7
Nicolò BarellaInter24it ITA32.2
Adrien RabiotJuventus26fr FRA25.7

Of these four players ranking in the top 40% for all four of our key stats, only Gonzalo Villar is a realistic option for Spurs. Juventus loaned Locatelli this summer with an obligation to buy, Barella is one of Inter’s key players, and Adrian Rabiot has issues off the pitch with his agent/mom that would be an issue for Tottenham to get behind (not to mention his wages would certainly break Spurs’ wage structure).

So, we’ll have to see if Villar makes it through other rounds of our search.

Player (>=70th percentile)SquadAgeNation90s
Gonzalo VillarRoma23es ESP20.7
Nicolò BarellaInter24it ITA32.2

Success! Gonzalo Villar does rank at least in the 70th percentile in all our key stats. However, no Serie A players last season rank in the top 20% for all four statistics, so we have to dive into Villar’s stats to see if he should be added to our B-list. He ranks 772nd percentile in both progressive passes and progressive carries, and about 85th percentile in carries and dribble success rate. Further, his pass completion rate for short, medium, and long passes are all at least 87th percentile, so Gonzalo Villar looks like a solid option for our B-list.

Gonzalo Villar performed very well in all of our focal statistics last season. While not as good as Dembélé (again, nobody is) he is definitely a solid option to consider if there are no better options.

Ligue 1

Ligue 1 has been an amazing league to find relatively inexpensive, but talented, high-potential young players over the years. I’m expecting at least one or two players to make our B-list, and hopefully we can finally get our first A-list prospect. Allez!

Player (>=60th percentile)SquadAgeNation90s
Yacine AdliBordeaux21fr FRA26.9
Youssouf FofanaMonaco22fr FRA31.9
Boubakary SoumaréLille22fr FRA21.3
Romain FaivreBrest23fr FRA32.1
Bruno GuimarãesLyon23br BRA19.5
Valentin RongierMarseille26fr FRA21.0

Boubakary Soumaré just transferred to Leicester this summer so he’s out, as is Yacine Adli because of his transfer to AC Milan (and loan back to Bordeaux), but every other player on this initial list would be a realistic transfer target for Spurs.

Player (>=70th percentile)SquadAgeNation90s
Yacine AdliBordeaux21fr FRA26.9
Boubakary SoumaréLille22fr FRA21.3
Bruno GuimarãesLyon23br BRA19.5

It’s starting to look like Spurs should have signed Adli or Soumaré! We’ll have to see if Bruno Guimarães stays on our next list or if he might get added to the B-list.

Player (>= 80th percentile)SquadAgeNation90s
Boubakary SoumaréLille22fr FRA21.3
Bruno GuimarãesLyon23br BRA19.5

Leicester have obviously made a quality signing in Soumaré. And given that Bruno Guimarães is the only realistic Spurs target to rank in the 80th percentile or higher for all four of our focal stats, he’s added to our A-list.

But wait, there’s more! Guimarães is the only player in last season’s Ligue 1 to rank in the top 10% for all four of our stats. Further, he ranks in the top 10% for short and long pass completion percent, and 88th percentile for medium:

Bruno Guimarães’s performance relative to other Ligue 1 midfielders last season was exceptionally close to Dembélé’s in 2017/18. If we hadn’t already added him to our A-list, he’d be there now.

We have one more league to scout, and then we’ll finish up by comparing all our A- and B-list players to see who Spurs should focus on signing, if any.

MLS

The MLS is our final league. And instead of looking at the most recent completed season (2020), I’ll look at data from the current season (2021), as of after games played by October 3rd. Teams have played about 28 games each. Because of this, I’ll look at midfielders with at least 900 minutes played, about a third of total available minutes.

Player (>=60th percentile)SquadAgeNationality90s
Caio AlexandreVancouver22br BRA10.6
Ezequiel BarcoAtlanta Utd22ar ARG18.8

Just two players in our initial search criteria of top 40%. However, neither rank in the top 30% for all four stats.

However, Eziquiel Barco ranks in the top 20% for three stats (progressive carries, carries, and dribble success rate), so let’s add him to our B-list. He might be a rather inexpensive option compared to the other players on the B-list coming from the MLS, but his performances would have to be taken with an asterisk because the jump from the MLS to the Premier League would be a much larger jump than Ligue 1 to the Premier League.

Barco looks fairly solid, and is one of the best carriers of the ball in the MLS this season with his combination of dribbling, progressive, and total carries. However, his relatively low passing completion rates would be something to question—even though they’re high, they’re just average, not well-above average like Dembélé and other players on our B-list.

However, Barco is one of the best in the MLS at creating shots and goals, ranking in the top 3% and top 4% respectively on those stats. Given Dembélé’s relative weakness in being involved closer to goal, that’s something to consider—perhaps Barco can be a little less effective at moving the ball up, but paired with the right midfielder like Højbjerg or Skipp, he could be an effective ball-carrier before helping in attack as well.

But that concludes our search in the six leagues I have detailed data on. Here’s our lists at the end. I’ve already shared statistics profiles for all our B-listers, and given that we have an A-list player, I’ll only discuss Guimarães more. Spurs should keep an eye on the development and availability of the B-list players, though, if not just to add more depth in midfield in the future.

PlayerClubLeagueList
Bruno GuimarãesLyonLigue 1A-list
Ander GuevaraReal SociedadLa LigaB-list
Florian GrillitschHoffenheimBundesligaB-list
Gonzalo VillarRomaSerie AB-list
Eziquiel BarcoAtlanta UnitedMLSB-list*
* Barco might need a loan to adjust to European football if purchased

Bruno Guimarães

Bruno Guimarães comes out as the player Spurs should focus on signing to get as close to a replacement for Mousa Dembélé as possible, given our restrictions of age and realistic signings. Guimarães’s stats in last season’s Ligue 1 were remarkable and it’s impossible to ignore the comparisons.

This chart shows both Dembélé and Guimarães’s rankings on a single chart:

It’s stunning how similar their performances were for our four focal stats, as well as pass completion rate. Further, in last season’s Ligue 1 Guimarães ranked much higher in every attacking stat here, namely, xA, shot-creating actions and goal-creating actions than Dembélé did in 2017/18 EPL. He also performed better at tackles & interceptions, so was more effective at winning possession back for Lyon than Dembélé was for Spurs.

Here’s also a quick table of our four focal stats and each players’ actual performance, instead of relative performance:

PlayerProg. Passes/90Prog. Carries/90Carries/90Dribble Success %
Bruno Guimarães (20/21)6.29.366.275.0%
Mousa Dembélé (17/18)8.210.062.183.1%

So we can see that the players’ actual numbers are still very similar, like their rankings compared to other players in their leagues.

The Verdict

After this relatively rough analysis, I can say that Tottenham should target Lyon’s Brazilian midfielder Buno Guimarães to attempt to fill the gap left by Mousa Dembélé. Transfermarkt values the player at €30M, and Lyon bought him in the winter 19/20 window for €20M. Given this, and his performances and importance to Lyon, Spurs might be able to get him for around €45M, maybe a little more.

The good news is that Lyon’s president Jean-Michel Aulas is open about selling players if an offer comes in above Lyon’s valuation of the player. Given Spurs’ recent problems stemming from a lack of a Dembélé-like player (among other issues), Daniel Levy and Fabio Paratici should take a close look at Bruno Guimarães.

And, while highlights aren’t always the best way to judge a player, I feel like after this analysis of his performance I can share a video. He does look like he’d be a great signing for Spurs.

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