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With or without the ball, Mousa Dembele was again exceptional for Tottenham at the weekend.IAN KINGTON/Getty Images

As a rule of thumb, Argentinian centre-halves don’t tend to be overeffusive or loquacious. They less call a spade a spade than brandish it as a potential weapon and ask questions later. Which is why whenafter Tottenham Hotspur’s win over Arsenal in Saturday’s north London derbyMauricio Pochettino repeated his view Mousa Dembele is a genius, it is worth further investigation than an indulgent smile in the direction of a manager seemingly punch drunk on the euphoria of victory.

The Belgian’s prodigious and manifold gifts have long since been an open secret, but as with an open marriage, it is perhaps only obvious to those purposely looking.

Both Tottenham and Fulham regulars speak of him glowingly with the quietly self-satisfied knowledge one usually reserves for an off-the-beaten-track restaurant only locals cherish but never so loud as to alert the rest of the world.

Similarly, Martin Jol and Pochettino rate him as the best they have ever worked with, as do a whole raft of team-mates­, both past and present. It was Jol who converted him from the forward Fulham bought from AZ Alkmaar into a deep-lying midfielder.

“I always say ‘Mousa, in my book you will be one of my genius players that I have been lucky to meet’. One was Maradona, the others Ronaldinho, Okocha and De la Pena—he was a genius too—and Mousa Dembele,” was how Pochettino described the 30-year-old in March, per the Evening Standard. It is a fire very much still burning.

Given Dembele’s Zen-like properties on the balla unique physique that is five per cent feather composite (his feet) and 95 per cent granite (the rest of him), a gliding style that has a little of the Roger Federer about it, and the fact the last time he lost possession Queen Victoria was on the thronehe should be one of the most talked about players in the Premier League.

Alas, charged with naming English football’s best players, he would be an afterthought for many. Dembele is the painting you forget to look at in the gallery, the support act you missed while at the bar, the girl you had a spark with but never got her number.

It is perhaps less he is underrated than undercelebrated. Tellingly, when you type his surname into Google, his Wikipedia page comes up after both Ousmane and Moussa’s: a tragedy and farce of Shakespearean proportions. 


Even at Spurs he is not the name that immediately springs to mind when attributing the parts that make up the greater whole.

In a tight squad, his profile is arguably lower than any of Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Harry Kane. Make no mistake, though, if Kane is the club’s heart, Dembele is the player who makes it beat. Saturday was a prime example.

His first misplaced pass didn’t arrive until the 50th minute, while he finished the game with a passing accuracy of 96.6 per cent, the best of either side.

At times, it was as if a skyscraper had been dumped smack bang in the middle of a row of bungalows. The willing Jack Wilsheresurely a certainty for the World Cup if he carries on in this veintugged at him as a child pleading for sweets does to a parent at a supermarket checkout but was as often as not outmuscled.

Alongside him, the perennially perplexed Granit Xhaka’s expression recalled a Harry Arter anecdote about facing Dembele for Bournemouth, per the Daily Mail: “In the middle of a match, I told him what I thought. ‘How do you do what you do? You front me up, I think I am going to tackle you and you manipulate the ball and move it so quickly.’ He was laughing.”

As is often the case, Dembele provided the pass before the pass for the goal. First, he did a number on Mesut Ozil physically before finding the ever-buccaneering Ben Davies free in space down the left. From his centre, Kane hung in the air, outmuscled Laurent Koscielny, before planting a header past Petr Cech so majestically old fashioned it seemed strange to see it in colour.

On the touchline, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger complained bitterly to the fourth official. Presumably he was arguing Kane had infringed Alan Shearer’s copyright on headers of such ilk.

All afternoon Dembele smothered his opponents, as did Dier alongside him, persistently as aggressive winning the ball back as he was subtly intelligent with it. And when he wanted to keep it, he brought into dispute the adage no man is an island.

When he sticks out an arse the Kardashian clan would swoon at, it’s as though he has a moat of water around him that makes breaching his defences nigh on impossible. He shields the ball as well as anyone in the game. As for pressing him, I’d rather try to press an articulated lorry. 

Mark Hughes, himself a master in the art of shielding, tells a story of how when he was Dembele’s manager at Fulham they used to refer to him as “the doctor;” whenever they gave him the ball, he made them feel better.

Famously, in 2016, Sunderland’s Didier Ndong became the first player to dispossess Dembele in six months. It ended a run of 31 consecutive successful dribbles. That it has become accepted without fanfare that it is practically impossible to get the ball off him seems to somewhat underplay a fairly impressive party piece. 

Football on Twitter is a depressingly tribal affair, yet it was wholly more civilised fare dished up at the weekend as Spurs and Arsenal brethren were unified in commenting on Dembele’s balletic grace, a bulldozer in a tutu. A pugilist with a dancer’s feet is a rare and wondrous thing it seems. 


It was a love-in interrupted only by commentators from further afield wishing to similarly salute football’s Rudolf Nureyev in the savage ballet that is the Premier League. For one weekend only, Dembele rivalled David Attenborough for the title of Britain’s favourite man.

When BT Sport named Kaneguilty of rare profligacy before and after his goalas man of the match, it looked as though the Twitter masses might take to the streets in protest. Fears were soon abated when the scorned populace realised the internet is warmer than it is outside.

In his last three league matches, against Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool (in the second half), Dembele has been nothing less than sensational. The more elevated the opponent, the better he gets, which is handy given Juventus away is up next for Spurs.

In truth, it has been a much-needed return to form. A stop-start season due to niggling injuries reached its nadir against Southampton on January 21 when he looked badly off the pace. While Pochettino would probably rather sell himself than the player, a potential replacement of Victor Wanyama’s pedigree waiting in the wings has perhaps acted as quite the jolt for Dembele.

Ever since the Saints game, Dembele has dwarfed his midfield counterparts to the extent it looked as though they had been plucked from Lilliput. To stop Gulliver in his tracks would probably have required Wilshere and Jordan Henderson taking a leg each while Paul Pogba jumped on his back.

Even then, you would fancy his chances of wriggling free, like the iguana that famously escaped from a pack of snakes in Planet Earth II. Watch carefully and it’s possible to make out how the gecko in the clip is wearing a No. 19 shirt.

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