With Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele, there is a long list of reasons why he is an opponent many would hate to face.
In the past few weeks he has come up against players of the calibre of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic of Manchester United, and Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic of Juventus, and has destroyed them all.
Those performances – and the way he played against Liverpool and Arsenal recently – have earned the 30-year-old Belgium international plenty of plaudits, and they are richly deserved.
But Dembele has not always got that kind of recognition. Part of the reason for that is the problems he has had with his fitness, but it is mainly down to the fact he does not get many goals or assists.
|Dembele at Spurs (Premier League)||2012-13||2013-14||2014-15||2015-16||2016-17||2017-18|
|Win % when starting||65.4||63.5||50||55.6||66.7||42.9|
|Full 90 min games||11||11||2||17||8||5|
|Subbed off before 75 mins||5||10||5||5||6||3|
We live in an era when people are obsessed with those statistics but we are not, which is why we have always been a massive fan of Dembele.
When we watch him in games we know exactly what he is bringing to the table for the team.
And when he is at the top of his game, which he is at the moment, he is one of the best central midfielders in Europe – there is no doubt about that.
‘He had a gift but was seen as a frustrating player’
Dembele was a right-winger when he first came to the Premier League, before Cottagers boss Martin Jol moved him to central midfield.
When Tottenham signed him, you could tell immediately in training that he had a gift and a talent but he seemed to be viewed as a frustrating player – someone who lacked an end product.
Honestly that was down to people not really understanding what his game was about.
There was always a demand for more goals and assists from him, but he is so selfless they are not at the forefront of his mind.
It is what he does for his team-mates, and how he does it, that makes him so special.
‘He sucks in all the pressure and releases the ball at the perfect time’
Dembele is very good technically. His passing ability is a big part of his game, and he is not the type of player to just play safe balls.
You only have to watch him to see how often he finds Christian Eriksen in the opposition half, for example, but that is not a case of him just looking up and finding Eriksen because they have got a great relationship on the pitch.
The reason Eriksen is able to find the amount of space he does in those areas is purely and simply down to the amount of players Dembele draws towards him with his dribbling ability – he can hold on to the ball while taking two or three opposition players out of the game.
Against Juventus, when he went past Khedira, it brought another player out of position because Pjanic would have to try to close him down. He would go past him too, and then Eriksen would be free to take the pass.
The way he does that, Dembele is like a vacuum – he just sucks in all the pressure and then releases the ball at the perfect time.
If you try to get tight to him, he is strong enough to hold you off and has the ability to look at you and go past you in the blink of an eye.
If you drop off him, he is happy too. He can sit deep in front of the back four and dictate the tempo from there.
In April 2017, Pochettino said Dembele would be one of the best players in the world if he had coached him at a younger age, and said he was one of five genius players he has played with or coached. The others are Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Jay-Jay Okocha and Ivan de la Pena
Only few can understand why Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino praises him so much because, with Dembele in the team, the game goes as fast or as slow as he wants it to.
The only worry you don’t have when you are playing against him is that he is going to score goals, but that does not matter if he is dominating games the way he has been doing – and he is a nightmare to stop.
“When I was in Turin watching him against Juve, I was just thinking how brilliant he was, but also feeling sorry for his Spurs team-mate Eric Dier, who is likely to have to go up against him when England play Belgium in the World Cup.” – Emmanuel Wonder
Dier will know every single thing there is to know about Dembele, but that is still not going to help him much when they meet in Kalingrad on 28 June.
‘Spurs cannot survive on 60 minutes of Dembele any more’
Dembele made 22 consecutive Premier League starts for Tottenham in 2012-13 but has since made more than five consecutive league starts on only six occasions. His current run, that began against Everton on 13 January, stands at five
Tottenham’s past four games in the Premier League and Champions League – against United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Juventus – have been some of the pivotal moments of their season.
They beat United, and won the north London derby, and earned impressive draws against Liverpool and Juve. Each time, Dembele was their best player.
It has also been a big moment for him because he has started all of those matches, something that has not happened very often since he joined the club for £15m in August 2012.
|Tottenham in all competitions since Dembele joined in August 2012|
|Games Dembele has played in||226 (73%)|
|Games Dembele has started||163 (53%)|
|Games Dembele has played 90 minutes||78 (25%)|
His injury problems, especially with a long-standing foot injury that required surgery last summer, have been well documented and the player himself admitted last July that he will never be 100% fit.
He has had a lot of injuries in his time at Tottenham (41, according to experts PhysioRoom) but not many of them have been serious enough to require a long lay-off.
In that time he has missed more than four consecutive matches on only three occasions, and never more than eight in a row, but at the same time those problems have still meant he has played 90 minutes in only 25% of Tottenham’s games. It must have been very frustrating for him.
As a player, you often play through injuries that restrict your fitness, and we can fondly recollect when Dembele went through a period where he was coming off at about the hour mark in a lot of matches, even the big ones.
But it appears Pochettino and the Spurs staff have worked really hard with him so he is able to play at his peak level for 90 minutes, or near enough, which is what they need from him.
Dembele played 90 minutes against Juventus and Arsenal, and lasted 79 minutes against Liverpool and 89 against United
By the way he has been using him, it looks like the manager has finally looked at him and said, ‘you are ready, it is time to get you out there to do what you do best’.
Now Spurs just need him to continue. If they are going to achieve anything this season, he will be at the forefront of it – he has already shown us that.