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It’s the end of an era as we know it. Do I feel fine?

28 August 2012

Dembele

A few hours have passed since the rumored became (what appears to be) reality, with news breaking after Fulham’s desultory 1-0 Capital One Cup loss at Sheffield Wednesday that the club had accepted an offer from Tottenham for standout midfielder Moussa Dembele. The immediate aftermath of the announcement, both on Twitter and on Fulham message boards, was one of shock and sadness from Cottagers’ faithful and nearly universal belief from everyone that Spurs had done good business if the alleged price of 15 million pounds was accurate.

There’s no doubt, regardless of what happens in the next several days before the transfer window closes at 11pm in England Friday night, that Fulham will take a short-term hit. Clubs like Fulham don’t replace players who have developed into what Dembele had become; even if they wanted to throw the full 15 million or more at one target, whoever that is at this point, that level of player hardly ever wants to commit to a mid-table club like Fulham. While Martin Jol may manage to lure some promising players with this cash, they will not be the finished, Premier League-impacting product that Dembele is, and may not be for awhile. Fulham’s central midfield, and their overall creativity and threat, especially against better sides, will suffer for now.

What exactly happened here, though, may go a long way toward piecing together exactly how Fulham will move forward, and whether the club will remain at or near its current level. It’s always difficult to trust British media reports when it comes to player transfers, but there were some interesting tidbits thrown around the last couple of days that are worth discussing.

Did Fulham have an option on Dembele’s contract?
It was repeated numerous times that Fulham had, and may have exercised, an option year on Dembele’s deal. This would seem a crucial piece of information, as while teams often sell assets in the final year of their contract, it would be very surprising if Fulham had Dembele under control until Summer ’14 and still jettisoned him in this window, especially with the ongoing uncertainty over Clint Dempsey. Barring a long-term injury, there’s no way Dembele would have been worth less than 15 million next summer, after a full season as Jol’s engine in his newfound deep-lying midfield role. Saturday’s masterclass against Manchester United was a tantalizing taste of what was to come.

Did Dembele’s deal have a release clause?
If it did, this would answer the question about selling despite having an option, because a club is required to accept a deal if another club hits the release clause price. Then it’s up to the player and the prospective buyer to work out personal terms on a new deal. If there was a release clause in Dembele’s deal, it also means there’s a modestly larger chance that he declines to move to Spurs and either stays with Fulham for now, or hopes a more preferred club (Manchester United? Real Madrid?) come with a comparable or better offer.

There are a couple of problems with this theory, though. First off, today’s statement from Fulham (last paragraph of the link) made no mention of a release clause trigger. It simply said the club had accepted an offer for Dembele and that he was undergoing a medical at Spurs. Secondly, it was suggested to me earlier this week that Fulham had actually named a price of 15 million to Spurs. While it’s possible that was just the release clause price, the combination of that info and the language in the official confirmation today lead me to believe a) there was no option in Dembele’s contract, meaning Fulham could have lost him for nothing next summer; and b) that Dembele had quietly told Fulham he wasn’t going to resign with them; and c) Dembele told the club that he would OK a move to Spurs.

If that’s the case, then perhaps Fulham did decently well to lock up a 15 million fee for an expiring asset, even though it appears Spurs will get a good deal out of this between Dembele’s current skill and whatever sell-on price Spurs can get for him down the road. Also, if those assumptions are true, then it’s also reasonable to assume that Martin Jol had a contingency plan in place in case he had to pull the trigger on this deal.

So what is that contingency plan?
That’s the 15 million pound question at the moment. Jol *has* to be on the hunt for central midfield help. There is no way Fulham can roll with injury-prone Mahamadou Diarra, mediocre Steve Sidwell, even-more-limited Chris Baird, and inexperienced Patjim Kasami as his CM stable. That foursome would be a ticket toward a relegation battle. Is it possible Jol would consider moving Bryan Ruiz back into Dembele’s role, combining with Diarra? That plan makes some sense financially, as it may be more fiscally/logistically possible to land a supporting striker or help elsewhere, but Ruiz’s lack of pace and even more pronounced lack of strength (albeit improved this season) probably makes him more more suited for where he is — sitting on top of a deep-lying midfield pair as a conduit/creative attacking mid.

OK, so *now* what happens with Clint Dempsey?
This is the other question that people are going to ask for the next three days. In an exchange with SI’s (and soccer fan) George Dohrmann on Twitter today, I suggested that Dempsey actually could be a good fit in this revamped Fulham roster, either inside with Ruiz centrally in a 4-1-4-1 alignment, with Diarra shielding the back four, or in Ruiz’s spot as a withdrawn striker, with Ruiz dropping back into Dembele’s role. Either solution would keep Alex Kaciniklic in Dempsey’s old spot in left midfield, and with Damian Duff on the right wing, Dempsey probably would get significant service to attack from both sides. This also would put him in a role more similar to how Jurgen Klinsmann seems to want to use him on the U.S. national team.

There’s one problem to this theory, though: Several people who probably know more than is publicly available are strongly suggesting that Jol has been lying about the Dempsey situation and that Clint is utterly livid. With the market speaking loudly about what it thinks of Dempsey’s value (and perhaps his salary ask), it is possible that a return to Fulham — should the club re-table an offer — might be Dempsey’s best theoretical option. If the bridge has been napalmed, though, he may have to end up taking a deal with Sunderland or someone else just to get out of SW6, and Fulham may have to take whatever money it can get for him, lest they be stuck with a rotting asset that they can’t cash in until January.

Even assuming a cut-rate deal for Dempsey, Fulham should have more than 20 million pounds (theoretically) available for new purchases, without owner Mohamed Al Fayed dipping into his pockets during this window. Fulham already added three pieces (Petric, Riether and Rodellega) without spending a dime on transfer fees, and Jol has found decent talent when he’s made purchases (even if Ruiz isn’t worth 10 million at the moment), so there’s definitely brightness out there somewhere in the horizon. Fulham fans need to trust, for now, that there is a plan here, and wait until Saturday to see what the picture looks like.

The immediate reaction, though, is one of surprise and sadness. From a club standpoint, the old “ambition” question will arise again. Fulham, at this point, is simply a feeder club, destined to lose any good players they develop, which can jade a fanbase, especially when such a move comes at the club’s modern peak. I’m also disappointed for me. It’s rare for Fulham to have a talent like Dembele and I was really looking forward to watching him this season. He’ll still be tearing through the midfield wearing white and black, but my joy won’t be nearly the same.

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