Moussa Dembele has been strongly touted for a move to the EPL in recent months, with Manchester United repeatedly linked with the Lyon frontman. The 23-year-old showed immense promise early in his career at Celtic and has continued his rise to prominence in France, firing 20 goals in 2018/19 and already notching 22 goals in all competitions this term.
Manchester United boast Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford in their forward ranks and, with the emerging talent of Mason Greenwood also knocking on the first team door, this raises the question of how Dembele could fit into Manchester United’s tactics. This piece will take the form of a scout report to analyse the strengths and playing style of Dembele, and also tactical analysis to look at how he could potentially be utilised by Manchester United.
First and foremost, Dembele is an excellent, composed finisher who scores a variety of goals with both feet and his head. His career goalscoring record (121 goals at a rate of 0.59 per 90 minutes) is impressive for a striker of his still relatively young age. What is perhaps most impressive about his goalscoring this season is his shot conversion percentage. For players in the top five European leagues this season to have scored 10 goals or more, Dembele sits third, behind only Jamie Vardy and Mauro Icardi, with a shot conversion percentage of 31.4%.
His clinical finishing also becomes apparent when looking at expected goals (xG) analysis. In Ligue 1 this season, Dembele has an xG rating of 10.71, but he has scored 16 goals. The graph below plots the xG rating of all forwards in Ligue 1 to have played more than 1300 minutes this season against their actual goals scored.
Data taken from Wyscout.
Players above the dashed line are outperforming their xG, whilst those below are underperforming. The graph shows that Dembele, along with Monaco’s Wissam Ben Yedder and PSG‘s Kylian Mbappe, has been one of the best strikers in France in terms of xG overperformance this season.
When players outperform their xG rating, it usually means one of two things: either they are on a hot streak of form, or they are an outstanding finisher. Analysing his career statistics to date, Dembele has outperformed his xG rating in 4 of his 5 seasons of professional football. To do this at a young age suggest he falls into the outstanding finisher category.
Off the ball movement
A quick look at Dembele’s heat map this season (below) shows that he spends a large proportion of his time in a central striking position and that he has a tendency to drift to an inside left position to involve himself in general build-up play.
As might be expected of a player with a good goalscoring record, his off the ball movement is first class. A good example comes from his goal against Bordeaux in January. In the image shown below, Maxwel Cornet has the ball in an attacking inside left position, whilst Dembele (circled) is being closely tracked. To create space for himself and a passing lane for Cornet, Dembele performs a clever in-to-out run, which completely wrong-foots his marker.
The pass from Cornet is well-executed, and the image below shows the space Dembele has engineered for himself with his off the ball movement. He then produces the match-winning goal with a terrific finish into the top left-hand corner.
A second example comes from Lyon’s 3-1 victory over Brest. In the image below, Dembele gets to a headed clearance first and diverts the ball infield to Houssem Aouar. After laying the ball off, Dembele quickly spins in behind his marker and is released by a return pass from Aouar.
Dembele outpaces the Brest defence to carry the ball into the penalty area, before firing a clinical left-footed finish into the bottom corner (image below).
A further example of Dembele’s excellent off the ball movement can be found in his goal away to Nantes in January. As seen in the image below, when Rayan Cherki receives the ball just inside the Nantes half, Dembele is stationed in an offside position.
However, he quickly senses the opportunity and shows great spatial awareness to delay and then bend his run, manoeuvring himself into an onside position from which he can receive the pass from Cherki (shown below). After doing so, Dembele rounds the goalkeeper and slides the ball into the net from an acute angle.
As well as the ability to make good runs behind the last line of defence, Dembele is adept at finding space in the penalty area. His goal away to Marseille earlier this season is an excellent illustration of this. Lyon have spread the play to the right wing, where Bertrand Traore has cut inside and is about to deliver a cross into the Marseille penalty area. Dembele (circled in the image below) knows where the danger area is: the space between centre back and full back. He peels away to the back post on the blind side of his marker, an inch-perfect cross arrives from Traore and Dembele nods the ball home from the edge of the six-yard box.
The various scenarios outlined above highlight the intelligent movement that is a feature of Dembele’s game. Despite often playing on the shoulder of the last defender, Dembele has only been caught offside 0.46 times per 90 minutes this season, again demonstrating how good his movement is and how well he is able to time his runs. He seems to possess a natural striker’s instinct, which is a large part of what makes him a successful goal poacher.
Whilst Dembele displays many of the classic traits of an out-and-out goalscorer, he also shows a willingness and desire to perform defensive duties for his team. The example shown below from the fixture against Nice begins with the Nice goalkeeper rolling the ball to his left-back to begin a counter-attack. Lyon have committed four men forward and Dembele realises that they may be susceptible to a quick counter. In response, he sprints all the way back to the halfway line to pressurise the Nice left-back (first image below). This prevents Nice engineering a 2v1 on the Lyon full-back and they are forced to play the ball sideways to reset their attack (second image below).
Manchester United’s system and Bruno Fernandes
So how might Dembele fit into the Manchester United team? To answer this, it is important to look at how Manchester United set up tactically. They have deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation for the majority of their games this season. Since his arrival in January, Bruno Fernandes has often been used in the number 10 role where he has attempted 3.42 through passes per 90 minutes, the highest rate in the EPL (albeit from a very small sample size). Nevertheless, it is clear that Fernandes is a risk-taker in possession and is more than happy to attempt ambitious passes into the final third. He often receives the ball between the lines and looks to thread through balls to a striker making a run in behind, as seen in the two images below. This has become a feature of the team’s play since Fernandes’ arrival.
From these examples, it is easy to see how Dembele could slot into the central striker role. With his exceptional off the ball movement, he could potentially form a potent partnership with Fernandes.
Comparison with Martial
Martial has mostly fulfilled the central striker role for Manchester United this season when fit. However, as his heatmap below shows, he tends to drift from his central position to the left wing, a position where he spent a large part of his career prior to this season.
In comparison, Dembele’s heatmap (shown above previously) is focused much more in central advanced areas, highlighting a key difference in their styles of play. A quick look at their season statistics also identifies other differences, summarised in the table below.
|Dribbles per 90||Forward passes per 90||Touches in box per 90||Shots per 90 (% on target)||Shot conversion %||Aerial duel win %||Recoveries per 90|
Data taken from Wyscout.
Dembele attempts fewer dribbles and forward passes per 90 minutes, probably as a result of staying more advanced and central. Interestingly, despite playing more centrally, Dembele averages fewer touches in the box and shots per 90 minutes this season. This may be a reflection of Lyon’s struggles in Ligue 1 this season, where they currently sit seventh, 10 points adrift of the Champions League places. This suggests that Dembele’s touches in the box and shots would likely increase at Manchester United, especially with a player like Fernandes behind him, which is an exciting prospect given his superb shot conversion percentage.
As well as having a higher shot conversion percentage, Dembele appears to be stronger in the air than Martial and completes more recoveries per 90 minutes. This is despite Manchester United and Lyon registering very similar passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) this season, a measure of pressing intensity. This would suggest that Dembele has a greater appetite for defensive work than his fellow countryman.
The statistics highlight that Dembele plays as more of an out-and-out central striker than Martial. Interestingly, in the January transfer window, Manchester United were strongly linked with Erling Braut Haaland, another striker in the out-and-out goalscorer mould. It would appear that this is the type of striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to spearhead his attack, and Dembele would fit that particular bill more than Martial.
This tactical analysis has outlined the key elements and strengths of Moussa Dembele’s game and how he could potentially fit into the Manchester United team. If Solskjaer has identified that his side needs an out-and-out striker to play the central striker role, Dembele would appear to be a good fit and could be a smart piece of business. He is a good age, an accomplished finisher, has shown year on year improvement in his goal output and appears to be ready for his big move to the EPL. If he is able to replicate his shot conversion percentage in the EPL, Dembele would add a different and more potent dimension to the Manchester United attack.