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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 when—after Tottenham Hotspur’s win over Arsenal in Saturday’s north London derby—Mauricio 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 ball—a 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 throne—he 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.
Jack Lang @jacklang
If he could stay properly fit, where would Dembélé be in the list of the best central midfielders in the world? Top 10?
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 Wilshere—surely a certainty for the World Cup if he carries on in this vein—tugged 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.
Ledley King @LedleyKing
Great win👏🏾could have easily been 4or5. what a performance from @mousadembele an absolute joy to watch. Enjoy your weekend guys😜#COYS
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 Kane—guilty of rare profligacy before and after his goal—as 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.
He truly is a unique specimen. Is there another player in world football who dribbles as well as they tackle? Or one who is as happy taking the ball when heavily marked as making a last-ditch sliding tackle?
His unorthodoxy as a player can perhaps in part be attributed to the fact he is far from a student of the game. By his own admission, he is not a huge fan of watching football. He once said he can barely get through 10 minutes of a game as a spectator, so he is unlikely to be burdened with the knowledge of what “type” of player he should be.
As left-footed as Ferenc Puskas, there is no secret to where he’ll take the ball, but then every fighter who got in the ring with Muhammad Ali knew he had a left hook that could lift you so far off your feet you’d kiss the clouds.
Knowing something is coming doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to stop. Dembele’s former team-mate, Kyle Walker, attested as much, per the official Tottenham website: “You always think he’s going to go left, but he pushes it that far that you can’t get it. It’s a joy to watch and the ball is like glue—it doesn’t move from his feet.”
Dribbling in the centre of the pitch is one of the hardest things to do in football, but Dembele does it effortlessly.
When he drops his left shoulder and shifts the ball past an opponent, it’s eerily reminiscent of Ryan Giggs, albeit in slow motion. The Wales manager was arguably the Premier League’s best at creating a yard for himself in the congested middle third, but then he was a will-o’-the-wisp winger with well over a decade’s experience of twisting the blood of full-backs before moving infield.
Mousa Dembélé @mousadembele
Very good vibes 🤙🏽⚪️🔵⚪️ #NLD #COYS https://t.co/h9RjQslUBx
Without the ball, Dembele resembles a (muscular) rambler, never breaking into more than a trot while giving the illusion he might at any point pull up at a bench to take in the scenery. Observe him carefully, though, and it becomes clear how studiously he watches the game unfold in front of him.
Like a Venus flytrap, he often sits and waits, lulling his prey to fly straight into his path. Over the course of his Premier League career, he has won 81 per cent of the tackles he has attempted and never made an error that has led to a goal.
Graeme Souness touched upon the art of attracting the ball by standing still in his column for the Sunday Times. The premise of the piece is essentially how he would more trust Paul Calf than Paul Pogba to run his central midfield.
The Scot compared the France international to “a schoolboy running after the ball in the playground.” One suspects Jose Mourinho is beginning to agree.
“One of the best pieces of advice I received was from Joe Fagan at Liverpool.
“I was coming back after 10 games out injured, the worst one of my career, and as we were going out he said to me: ‘You’re not up to match fitness, but if you stand still, the ball will come to you.’
“I went out with that in my head and it stuck with me for the rest of my career. You don’t have to run around like a headless chicken—sometimes, just by standing still, you find the space and time to play while everybody else is moving around you.”
BT Sport Score @btsportscore
Mousa Dembele vs. Arsenal:
96.6% pass accuracy
Absolutely dominated the middle of the park. #BTSportScore https://t.co/Ri0zjFoX9i
Dembele unequivocally dominated Pogba when Manchester United left Wembley Stadium with a 2-0 defeat on January 31 that flattered them greatly.
Pogba was hooked then, dropped for United’s next game against Huddersfield Town and was again withdrawn at Newcastle United on Sunday for tactical reasons.
There were more than a few Manchester United supporters on social media at the weekend suggesting Dembele would be the perfect foil for Pogba. Sir Alex Ferguson never hid his admiration for a player he will surely see as one that got away when he looks back on his final few years at Old Trafford.
A lack of “end product” is what many argue stops the Belgium international from ever being anything other than very good. In 225 Premier League appearances, he has 12 goals and as many assists. Prolific he is not. Still, he tops the charts in terms of both pirouettes and Cruyff turns.
A cursory glance at Dembele’s arbitrary figures for the past couple of campaigns presents a midfield player who has registered just a solitary goal and a single assist in the past two years. Kevin De Bruyne would consider such an output as a satisfactory afternoon’s work, no more.
Nonetheless, the Manchester City man once said of his compatriot: “For me, in a five-a-side he’s the best player in the world. He’s so strong on the ball, you can never take the ball off him. Offensively and defensively, (he’s) one of the best.”
In any case, the only men who want to be remembered for their numbers are accountants. So, instead, luxuriate in watching a player as beguiling as any over the past half decade or so.
Though seemingly oxymoronic, in a nice interview with the Daily Mail in 2012, Dembele, then 25, explained how his perplexing disinclination to shoot is rooted in his adolescence playing football in the street. His shanked effort on Saturday, after the ball broke invitingly to him on the edge of Arsenal’s box, was so out of keeping with every other aspect of his game it was hard to believe such abjectness had come from the boot of the same player.
“Before I always played on the street with two lampposts that were like a basketball pitch, and we could not shoot,” he told the Daily Mail‘s Laura Williamson. “You had to dribble and touch the ball on the posts to score. We never shoot the ball.
“When I was young I never shot. I always wanted to dribble the ball in the goal. I don’t want to shoot because I don’t like to, but it’s different now.”
Ray Clemence @RayClem1
Great performance @SpursOfficial today better than Arsenal in all departments should have had more goals excellent performances all round but @mousadembele was outstanding #COYS
Nominally classed as a box-to-box midfielder, the problem, relatively, is that Dembele is a master at neither end. In the middle third, however, when fit, he is surely among the best in the world.
It is the fitness issue—one that Pochettino accepts he has to be “careful” with after the player underwent foot surgery in the summer to ease a long-standing problem, via The Independent—that has arguably stopped Dembele from never attracting more than admiring glances from the heaviest heavyweights.
If he keeps up his current form, it may yet come. Though it would probably take a braver man than Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy to inform Pochettino he is selling his genius.
Especially if Pochettino is wielding that spade.
All stats provided by the official Premier League website unless otherwise stated