Mousa Dembele doesn’t score goals. Doesn’t assist. He’s not especially adept at shielding a defence as a lone defensive midfielder and he rarely passes the ball more than 10 yards, through a defence or off the ground. Yet while serving suspension at the beginning of the 16/17 Premier League season Mauricio Pochettino declared, if with a joking tone, “Without Mousa Dembele, we do not exist.”
So what does he do?
The most obvious, striking aspect of the Belgian’s game is his ability to receive, retain and carry the ball under pressure, often taking on the entire opposition midfield in a single spell of possession. Dembele is two things in an especially rare combination; a large-framed athletic freak and a silk-footed master of ball control.
These two attributes in tandem create the ultimate dribbler for the open spaces of central midfield. His time in this role at Fulham demonstrated his potency as a midfielder who can launch counter-attacks but in the possession heavy set-up at Spurs, Pochettino has Dembele use these attributes to engage, move or pin opposition midfielders so Tottenham’s attacking players can find space and be served with easy passes to feet within the opposition block.
For the purposes of their counter-pressing style of defence Tottenham raise the bar on the acceptable level of physicality in challenging for the ball. This has the negative effect of allowing Spurs’ more dainty, attacking players to become bullied out of games. Mousa, is the cure, riding the storm of challenges himself before finding an easy pass. When pressed themselves, up or down field, Dembele’s teammates use him as a safe place to store the ball while adjusting their position.
These skills all make sense for a player previously deployed as a second striker but the former attacker is also a huge defensive presence in his ability counter-press the midfield area. The Tottenham pressing scheme is all about never letting the opposition settle, forcing them into rash dribbles or long passes.
The 30 year old’s strength, speed, balance, reactions and ball control are called upon again in this department but so is anticipation and clever positioning to operate a very aggressive defensive role without being caught ahead of the ball.
All these clips are from a single game because I wanted to demonstrate the breadth of Mousa’s influence across 90 minutes. There should be no doubt over his ability to maintain this level for every game he plays. The only thing stopping him from a season long influence is his struggle with sustaining match fitness in the light of on-going, niggling hip and foot injuries.