Even before he’d made 30 appearances following his move from Fulham, he was already been talked about as a former Celtic player such was his initial impact, both in the league and in European competition, plus a starring performance for France under-21s against England.
For the last three transfer windows he has been regularly splashed across the back pages. Even on Christmas Day it was reported that he was joining Brighton & Hove Albion. French giants Marseille are the latest team ‘set to sign Dembele’. He’s already ‘nearly’ signed for Manchester United and AC Milan, Crystal Palace and West Ham United.
It wouldn’t be remiss to suggest that the speculation finally affected the player in the build up to the latest January transfer window. Perhaps he did see his future away from Celtic Park. Brendan Rodgers was routinely asked about a possible departure and noted how unhelpful it is for the player who, himself, did not rule out a move.
Rodgers said: “Speculation can be very unhelpful for a young player. If you are an experienced player you get used to it. But if you’ve been linked with so many clubs over a period of time, then it surely can be unsettling. It’s not something that ends up being good for a player.”
Celtic played nine times in December. Dembele was left out the squad once, left on the bench twice and failed to score. When he did play it wasn’t the focused striker who can run the best centre-backs ragged. It was largely his worst spell in a Celtic top; caught on his heels, his play wasn’t joined up and his composure was lacking as if he was guilty of overthinking.
Players can be fit as a fiddle but if they are not playing with a clear head it can have a substantial affect on performance, more so than a little niggle can have. The way a player feels is huge in determining their output. A murky mindset where concentration is not 100 per cent will see players react slower; the picture they have of the game developing will be hazy, which leads to tunnel vision and playing for themselves. It then becomes a cycle of frustration.
It is therefore understandable Rodgers started or simply left Dembele on the bench when speculation was rife. It was savvy man management and showed an understanding of the situation where Dembele’s presence on the field may have been more of a hindrance than a help.
After such an impressive debut season for Celtic the second campaign has been stop-start, owing to hamstring problems, and slightly underwhelming on the face of it. But delve deeper and the perceived drop off for Dembele is not there. Prior to the Old Firm game Dembele was sitting at a goal or assist every 76 minutes, compared to one every 77 minutes last season. He then went and scored one and set up one in Celtic’s 3-2 win.
Dembele’s impact and all-round performance in the most recent Old Firm game should not have come as a surprise. After all it was a big game, perhaps the biggest league encounter between the sides since Rangers’ 2012 financial meltdown. It was made for Dembele who has proven himself to be Celtic’s ultimate big-game player.
As soon as Fabio Cardoso arrived on the pitch he spotted a glaring weakness in Rangers’ backline. He shrugged him off at ease for the opening goal before spinning and playing an excellent first time pass to Odsonne Edouard for the winning goal.
Hitting 32 goals in his debut season saw him talked up as an expert finisher, even if he wasn’t the most natural at the club. But what was overlooked was his facilitating. It is something which he has continued to improve with seven league assists this season, compared to eight in the whole of last term. He leads the league for assists per 90 minutes.
But, as ever, strikers are remembered for their goals: their big contributions in crucial moments. It is here where the Frenchman thrives, and is the reason he is continually linked with moves to one of Europe’s elite leagues. For Celtic, both Dembele and Griffiths have very similar scoring rates. The former averages 0.56 goals per game, the latter 0.55, albeit Griffiths has played nearly 100 matches more.
Specifically looking at games we can class as ‘big’ the difference becomes clear. (Big games in this instance are defined as those against Rangers and Aberdeen, semi-finals and finals, as well all European games, excluding second round Champions League qualifiers, due to the standard of opposition.) Dembele has netted 19 times in 32 games (0.59 goals per game). Griffiths too has struck 19 times, but in 59 games (0.32 goals per game). Of Dembele’s 13 goals this season eight have arrived in big matches. It should be worth re-emphasising, he’s still 21.
There has been a suggestion, an expectation even, that he will depart the club this summer. The move, of course, has to be one which suits both parties. The player should be wary of having his development stunted by becoming a bit-part players somewhere, while the club can’t allow player or agent power to dictate their decision. On the pitch, however, Celtic will find Dembele very difficult to replace if he does exit.
They struck gold when they convinced the striker to move north of the border. Under Rodgers he has turned into a platinum forward, a high-level operator who will go down as one of the finest bits of business a football club has done. Yet, no fan sings about shrewd business acumen. They will hope that the Frenchman will continue in the east end of Glasgow. If he does, they can rely on him to turn up on the big occasions to produce big moments.