The Tottenham man is both a creator and a ball-winner, a combination that's become less common in today's game. Alex Hess analyses the Belgian's brilliant renaissance...
Spurs are on the up – a club transformed! – and what’s more they’re doing it the English way. Mauricio Pochettino’s resurgent side have cured the club’s chronic character deficiency and converted the tone of the “Lads, it’s Spurs” team talk from sneering dismissal into well-founded trepidation. A corner has been turned, the revival headed by a troop of homegrown youngsters. And yet, at the core of the revival, and the man who has turned the sharpest corner of the lot, is a 28-year-old Belgian.
After two years in the near wilderness, Mousa Dembele is back – and with something as close to a vengeance as can be applied to a player of his all-consuming nonchalance. The man who just weeks ago seemed consigned to the periphery, whose languid manner looked to have been supplanted by the swarming urgency of his younger, hungrier team-mates, is now a central figure in Project Poch.
Strangest of all, Dembele’s rejuvenation seems to have occurred largely by accident. When Pochettino took over last summer, the many who saw the Belgian’s strolling style as incompatible with his new boss’s demands were treated to a season’s worth of affirming evidence. He started just 10 league games, making next to no impression. The common presumption was that a summer move for a player who had been drifting for some time would make sense for all parties.
When the transfer window came and went with the seemingly inevitable never materialising, a handful of rather nondescript outings in Spurs’ opening fixtures this term didn’t offer much vindication for his enduring presence in north London. The frustration with Dembele was much the same as it had been ever since his bright start to his Spurs career tailed off at the start of 2013: he was just too passive, too happy to amble around the centre-circle while 21 strangers played a game of football around him. The antithesis, in short, to everything his coach required.
Return to the fold
Whispers of a cut-price move to Italy have turned into whispers of a new deal at White Hart Lane
If you believed in Mousa Dembele, that was the time to buy your shares; in mid-October came his Sliding Doors moment. He had not started a game for six weeks but with Eric Dier, Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb all sidelined, he was drafted into central midfield for the visit of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
The game was a largely glum affair but Dembele’s diligence impressed, and since then the Belgian's name has been marked in ink on every one of Pochettino's team sheets. With Dier returning, Dembele was soon shifted up into the No.10 role, another position for which the club have a surfeit of options. Despite the return to fitness of all of them, the Belgium international has proved undroppable.
He has started all of his side’s seven fixtures in the space of weeks, equalled his goal tally for the previous two years and been the driving force behind Spurs’ no-longer-under-the-radar renaissance. He’s even got referees cheering his goals. Whispers of a cut-price move to Italy have turned into whispers of a new deal at White Hart Lane.
Ability vs mentality
At the risk of reducing a complex human formula into a simplified binary, the issue with Dembele has never looked to be one of talent, more of application
It does raise the question, though, of quite what he’s been doing with himself for the last couple of years. And at the risk of reducing a complex human formula into a simplified binary, the issue with Dembele has never looked to be one of talent, more of application.
Les Ferdinand, who worked on Spurs’ coaching staff under Tim Sherwood’s management, said of Dembele last year: "He's got great ability, yet you just don't see enough of it. He leaves you frustrated because you know he's got more and you want to see it. We used to watch him in training. Every time he got the ball he wanted someone to challenge him and he'd get past them but then just pass it sideways."
It was a frustration that pervaded White Hart Lane’s stands as well as its dugout. In a way, it's easy to cast Dembele as a victim of his own talent: as with any player whose ability appears to come so effortlessly, any downturn in form tends to be interpreted as a lack of endeavour. Fairly or not, in the eyes of the spectator there’s a thin line between effortlessness and simple lack of effort.
Where once upon a time every top side would have a Vieira, Gerrard or Essien capable of gathering the ball deep and putting on the burners, you can now count on one hand the central midfielders able to suddenly ramp up a game's tempo with a purposeful surge
But for whatever reason – perhaps the swarm of rosy-cheeked tyros breaking through has reignited his hunger; perhaps he’s simply fitter and more confident than before – Dembele is finally playing to his potential again, dominating rather than decorating. He certainly looks more motivated, not just tackling at a higher rate than ever before, but fouling plenty more, too.
Having settled at the centre of the attacking trident behind Harry Kane, Dembele has rediscovered the goal threat required for the role while also doing plenty to aid the fire-extinguishing duties of Dier behind him.
But, crucially, he offers something that no one else in the squad – and hardly anyone else in the league – does: the ability to carry the ball through the middle in the pitch. Where once upon a time every top side would have a Vieira, Gerrard or Essien capable of gathering the ball deep and putting on the burners, you can now count on one hand the central midfielders able to suddenly ramp up a game's tempo with a purposeful surge.
Dembele’s dribbling skills (which led former manager Martin Jol to label him "probably the best player on the ball I've ever seen") are a legacy of his career as a forward in Holland, first for Willem II and then Louis van Gaal’s AZ Alkmaar. With the latter, his side came within a game of winning the Dutch league, and to watch his 10 goals from the 2008/09 season is to watch a player who could breeze past multiple defenders with almost apologetic ease.
If recent weeks have served as a reminder of Dembele's merits, they are also a reminder of previous false dawns. His first spate of games for Spurs in the autumn of 2012 drew many purrs of approval from a growing legion of admirers – not least Sir Alex Ferguson, whose title winners-in-waiting hosted two Dembele masterclasses in a month. The second of these (during Spurs’ famous 3-2 win at Old Trafford) came after his own offer to Fulham had been bettered by Daniel Levy’s and the midfielder had relocated to Seven Sisters rather than Salford.
At that point the Belgian looked the perfect replacement for the silk-booted Luka Modric – but with added muscle. On these very pages it was noted, four months after the Belgian's signing, that "Spurs haven’t experienced a dip in quality since Modric's departure". Thirty-four months after his signing, though, it is a rather different story. Or at least it was until recently.
In an era of midfield specialists, Dembele can do the lot. It is faintly astonishing to note that so far this season, he averages both the sixth-most dribbles and the fourth-most tackles in the league. Taken as a pair, these facts illustrate the rare completeness that makes Dembele a player worth persisting with: he is at once a forward-gliding creative force and an aggressive ball-winner. "I like to do defensive work and attack from midfield," he has said. "I think I can do both." He's not wrong.
It’s a pleasing paradox that at the heart of one of the division’s most modern outfits is that most old-fashioned of figures: the box-to-box all-rounder. And yet within that, too, lies a further paradox: Dembele plays English football’s most traditionally tub-thumping position – the one defined by the clenched fists of Souness, Robson and Gerrard – with an air of Zen-like detachment. Rambling instead of rampaging, insolence instead of turbulence, Dembele plays the most blood-and-thunder of roles with an absolute minimum of both.
He is a fitting driving force behind a side that are fusing together the old and the new to great effect. And more simply, an in-form Mousa Dembele is among the league’s most appealing and enchanting spectacles. Long may his renaissance continue.