Accepting the idea of Mousa Dembele leaving Tottenham this summer is difficult enough to accept. Even attempting to replace him is practically nigh-on impossible. With both Milan clubs circling and Dembele now 30, acknowledging this inevitability is all the more necessary.
Where do you begin to identify a target with a similarly unique skillset?
Anybody replacing the Belgian, at the very least, has to be able to retain the ball and take-on opponents to progress play, as well as possessing solid defensive attributes and a high work rate.
RealSport compare the central midfield targets linked with Tottenham thus far.
1 Mario Lemina
Current club: Southampton
Transfermarkt value: £13.5m
The one player linked with Premier League experience -having spent 2017/18 with Southampton after a £15m switch from Juventus- and, perhaps, with the most similar skillset to Mousa Dembele.
Lemina is renowned for his work ethic, solid distribution and ability to begin attacks after winning back the ball, demonstrated by his take-ons won (54) and passing accuracy (88%).
Mario Lemina Mousa Dembele Pass completion 88% 92% Chances created 8 16 Take-ons 54 66 Interceptions 36 32 Tackles won 39 22
Lemina won more tackles (39) than Dembele (22), as well as making more interceptions (36). Whilst highlighting his strong defensive work rate, this can be partially explained that Southampton enjoyed less possession than Spurs and predominantly played on the back foot.
KEY STAT: Lemina was successful in 88.5% of his attempted take-ons.
With six years of youth on Dembele, Lemina boasts longevity and his tactical versatility means he's highly receptive to knew styles of play. An attractive prospect all round.
2 Jean Michael Seri
Current club: OGC Nice
Transfermarkt value: £31.5m
Jean Michael Seri rose to prominence after a fantastic season with Nice in 2016/17, but a move never materialised for him last summer, despite links with a host of top European clubs.
Seri, like Lemina, compares favourably to Dembele. He's highly press resistant and capable of getting himself out of trouble, as well as boasting an impressively inventive range of passing.
For instance, Seri was accurate in 91% of his passes and 75% of his attempted take-ons, only 5% less than Dembele. His defensive contributions are also a noted aspect of his game, making 21 interceptions and 12 tackles.
KEY STAT: Seri created 58 chances in 2017/18, the most of any Nice player.
However, what distinguishes him from Dembele is his attacking impetus from deep. The Ivorian created 58 chances -42 more than the Belgian- and assisted five goals. Seri, therefore, is much more of a threat in the final third.
3 Mateo Kovacic
Current club: Real Madrid
Transfermarkt value: £27m
The Croatian is another midfielder with a similar skillset to Dembele's, but what makes Kovacic such an attractive prospect is the fact that he's already an experienced winner at the age of 24.
Signing for Real Madrid aged 21 in 2015, Kovacic has won three Champions Leagues -one every season since arriving-, two Club World Cups, two UEFA Super Cups and one La Liga title. Spurs need exactly this character to aid in their transition to the next level.
Statistically speaking, Kovacic impresses too. Of all the aforementioned central midfielders, the Croatian boasts the best passing accuracy (94%) and highest take-on completion percentage, demonstrating his ability to retain and progress the ball with consummate ease.
KEY STAT: Kovacic successfully completed 96.7% of his attempted take-ons.
However, Kovacic created less chances (7) than any other target and made the fewest interceptions (5). He did, though, win 24 tackles, twice as many as Seri.
At 24, Kovacic is a highly accomplished player with significant potential to improve further and it's criminal that he's not played more often at the Bernabeu. Having won it all in the Spanish capital, perhaps more playing time is a lure Spurs can use to their advantage.
4 Tanguy Ndombele
Current club: Lyon
Transfermarkt value: £15m
An fairly unknown quantity previously, Tanguy Ndombele has enjoyed a fantastic breakthrough season with Lyon on loan from Amiens. The 21-year-old was one of Les Gones' standout performers.
A young player excelling at his club with a moldable playing style checks all the boxes of Mauricio Pochettino's ideal signing, but Spurs fans have every right to hold a degree of scepticism over another 'N'...' signing from Ligue 1.
Ndombele, however, would break the trend. Firstly, he's not an N'winger...
KEY STAT: Ndombele completed 73 take-ons for Lyon.
More importantly, Ndombele was a key attacking threat from deep, assisting the third most goals of any Lyon player (6), as well as creating 40 chances, only behind Memphis Depay and Nabil Fekir.
In terms of ball retention, Ndombele compares well. A 90% passing accuracy is nothing to turn your nose up at, and he completed the most take-ons of all aforementioned players (73). Defensively, Ndombele made 33 interceptions and 37 tackles, underpinned by relentless energy.
5 Thiago Alcantara
Current club: Bayern Munich
Transfermarkt value: £54m
"Thiago oder nichts," is what Pep Guardiola told the Bayern hierarchy in his first summer at the club back in 2013.
Recognised as one of the finest central midfielders of his generation, Thiago Alcantara's availability changes the entire complexion of Spurs' search for a Dembele replacement.
Renowned as a highly creative and technically gifted deep-lying playmaker, Thiago's best season for Bayern -2016/17- saw him score six goals and assist five, as well as completing 60 take-ons and creating 49 chances.
Thiago also possess a strong acumen for defence -despite his reputation as a playmaker-, making 125 interceptions and 57 tackles.
KEY STAT: Thiago recorded a 92% passing accuracy in the 2017/18 Bundesliga.
The immediate concern with Thiago, however, is his proneness to injury. He was restricted to 19 Bundesliga appearances this season, 16 in 2013/14 and 7 in 2014/15. In fact, the most he's made in one Bayern season was 27 in 2015/16 and 2016/17.
An injury prone 27-year-old with limited resale value following a large initial outlay isn't the profile Spurs look for in their signings, but Thiago would make a significant statement of their intentions.
RealSport verdict: Tanguy Ndombele
Whilst Thiago is the dream signing -the marquee and established name that Spurs fan crave-, given his dwindling potential for resale, high initial value and proneness to injury, it's unrealistic.
Therefore, Spurs should look towards Tanguy Ndombele. The reluctance to sign a player from Ligue 1 is justified given the duds Spurs have brought over from France in the past, but the 21-year-old looks the real deal.
He has an extremely well-rounded skillset; able to progress the ball, safely retain possession, execute defensively, but his distinctive feature is his attacking impetus from deep, the best of all aforementioned players this season.
Moreover, at 21 the Frenchman is still developing -and, thus, highly receptive to Pochettino's coaching-, won't cost a fortune and has a resale value to satisfy Daniel Levy's insatiable hunger for profit.
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