Is Moussa Dembélé worth a potential mega transfer fee?
“Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” a woman tells her friend in a Borscht Belt joke reproduced by Woody Allen (ugh, sorry) in Annie Hall. “Yeah, I know,” her interlocutor replies, “and such small portions.” Replace food with shots and you have Moussa Dembélé, reportedly a transfer target for Manchester United and Chelsea.
The 23-year-old Lyon striker is having a bad year. In better times, way back in 2018–19, he took — and converted – plenty of good shots in the box. He didn’t do much else, but that was his job. He was good at it. This season, he’s doubled down on being a target man. He’s winning the ball in the air more and dribbling less. He’s still not doing much in the non-shooting department . . . but now he’s also not doing much in the shooting department. Dembélé is getting fewer shots than the average Ligue 1 striker and the quality of his chances has markedly decreased, all of which adds up to a player who contributes very little.
At the same time, Dembélé is having a hot finishing season. Going into Ligue 1’s winter break, he’s turned chances worth 4.3 expected goals into 8 non-penalty goals. Add in his scoring two of three penalties and you have a player who is tied for third in the Ligue 1 scoring table — just one goal behind Kylian Mbappé (who has played far fewer minutes). If that’s the only figure examined, Dembélé looks like a player on the rise.
Dembélé is hardly the first player to paper over a bad season with some hot finishing. This dynamic, however, makes the transfer interest somewhat mystifying. Player transfers are wont to reflect goal totals. (See: Pépé, Nicolas.) A club that buys Dembélé will therefore be paying for one of France’s top strikers. If his production falls in line with this season’s underlying numbers, that’s a bad deal. If a club believes Dembélé will return to his 2018–19 form, they won’t be able to buy low because his current season is superficially successful. Neither of those are tremendously appealing propositions.
If this season proves to be a blip, those considerations will cease to matter. Members of the public needn’t care whether a billionaire saves some money or pays the full price when buying a good player. But is it just a blip?
Lyon are taking five fewer shots per 90 minutes this year than the side that led Ligue 1 by a large margin in 2018–19. While that number suggests team-wide issues, Dembélé is the only player whose shot volume has fallen off a cliff (The drop-off largely reflects Nabil Fekir, a prolific shooter, leaving the club, and Memphis Depay, who had been taking his usual bevvy of shots, being injured). Manager Rudi Garcia’s arrival as the mid-season replacement for Sylvinho hasn’t had any effect on Dembélé’s shooting. It’s not immediately clear why only Dembélé’s shots, and not those of other attackers like Maxwel Cornet or Bertrand Traore, have gone missing.
The diminished quality of Dembélé’s shots, on the other hand, is consistent with the team’s other attackers. They may all be feeling the effects of crucial injuries and Fekir and Tanguy Ndombele leaving the club. One glaring example: Dembélé took 19 shots from through-balls in just under 2,200 league minutes in 2018–19; he’s already played more than 1,500 minutes this season and taken one such shot. Worsening service can’t explain away all his issues, but it helps show how his shots have become so much worse while still coming from similarly close and central locations.
Bad years happen. Moussa Dembélé is young and may rebound. Insofar as his only value comes from shooting in the box, though, clubs would do well to wait and see if he’s still good at that.