Michael Cox: Why Mousa Dembele was monstrous in the North London derby

The Belgian posted some big numbers in tough conditions, and could be Spurs’ most important player in the run-in...

The atmosphere around White Hart Lane ahead of Saturday’s dramatic 2-2 draw with Arsenal was quite something. This was the biggest north London derby of the Premier League era, and perhaps the biggest north London derby ever. It was loud. 

And yet, the volume still raised notably at one particular moment.

That was when the lineups were announced, and it was confirmed that Tottenham midfielder Mousa Dembele was fit to start alongside Eric Dier in the centre of midfield. Dembele was a serious injury doubt ahead of the game, and Spurs fans’ reaction to his name underlined the fact he’s become one of their most important players.

Pochettino's perfect player

Dembele, though, rose above this scrappiness to record an incredible pass-completion rate of 97%, misplacing just one pass all game.

Dembele is perfect for the style of football Mauricio Pochettino demands. He’s physically intimidating, extremely energetic, and his default approach when he receives possession is to move forward immediately. 

A converted forward who naturally wants to attack, Dembele’s habit of slaloming forward in possession is unusual from a player in his position, but it means he’s particularly difficult for opponents to play against.

The most interesting feature of his game, though, is that despite such an attacking mentality he’s also extremely careful with his distribution. Sometimes it feels like he’s too cautious, refusing to play ambitious passes into attack in favour of keeping things simple.

Nevertheless, against Arsenal at the weekend, a furious, high-tempo game of football where both sides concentrated more on pressing than passing, his patience in possession was magnificent to watch.

Having been out of favour at the start of the season, Dembele is now a Pochettino favourite

Overall, Tottenham’s pass-completion rate was 75%, 5% lower than their average this season. Arsenal’s was just 71%, a whole 13% lower than their usual figure of 84%, the best in the Premier League. Indeed, Arsenal’s figure was their lowest of the season, and their lowest since the corresponding fixture last season.

Dembele, though, rose above this scrappiness to record an incredible pass-completion rate of 97%, misplacing just one pass all game. Compare this figure to the other central midfielders on display (Mesut Ozil 82%, Eric Dier 81%, Mohamed Elneny 81%, Dele Alli 76%, Francis Coquelin 73%) and Dembele’s composure becomes clear in an incredibly frantic midfield zone. 

He continually received the ball under pressure, turned away from an opponent and found a team-mate in space. It’s no more than the basics of central midfield play, certainly, but doing that in this environment was hugely impressive.

Midfielder dominator

He remains highly useful in terms of ball-winning, too. His seven completed tackles was the most in the game, and he also made two interceptions.

Dembele also showcased his stereotypical dribbles past opponents. He completed five of his six completed take-ons – which becomes more interesting when you compare this to the other central midfielders, none of whom completed more than a single dribble. 

With the game so chaotic in midfield, only the full-backs had time and space to beat opponents. Dembele was the exception.

He remains highly useful in terms of ball-winning, too. His seven completed tackles was the most in the game, and he also made two interceptions.

It’s quite a feat: in such a highly charged game, Dembele was the most consistent passer, the most prolific dribbler, and the most successful tackler. 

The good thing, from Dembele’s perspective, is that opponents are realising that the best way to face Spurs is by attempting to match their energetic pressing style – an approach which has resulted in both West Ham United and Arsenal causing Pochettino’s side problems this week. 

That should play into the Belgian’s hands. Against sides that sit deep, his inability to play penetrative passes or become a regular goal threat are clear. 

However, against teams pressing up and attempting to stick tight, he’s perhaps the best midfielder in the Premier League. If Spurs are to win the title, they’ll need Dembele to remain fit for the rest of the season. 

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