Diego Costa’s decision to cast his bib to the wind in an act of petulance at White Hart Lane was the major talking point in an underwhelming 0-0 draw between Tottenham and Chelsea on Sunday. Costa’s outburst masked another superb performance by a rejuvenated Mousa Dembele in the Spurs midfield. When the Belgium international began hobbling in the first half, Tottenham supporters’ hearts were in mouths. That’s quite the change in fortunes.
Fortunately, Dembele recovered and went on to win the WhoScored.com Man of the Match award with a rating of 8.45. Such an impressive showing means he is now the fourth highest-rated player in the Premier League (7.72). If there were obstacles blocking the Belgian’s development at White Hart Lane at the start of the season, he’s swept them out the way emphatically.
Dembele was one of those at risk of falling by the wayside when Mauricio Pochettino took charge at White Hart Lane 18 months ago. Ongoing injury problems limited his influence in recent seasons and, given the Argentine’s preference of developing younger players, there was a chance that Dembele would be deemed surplus to requirements this season. Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason establishing themselves as the first-choice midfield pairing during the last campaign only made things worse. With Eric Dier surfacing as a first-team midfielder and Dele Alli’s rapid rise to the fore, there was reason to believe that Dembele was the fifth-choice central midfielder for Tottenham.
An ankle problem sustained in the 0-0 draw with Everton in August threatened to stifle his emergence as a key player even further, but it was the stalemate with Liverpool upon his return that highlighted the Belgian’s potential importance. Since then, Dembele has started every league game and can now be considered one of the first names on the teamsheet. Effortlessly driving forward when in possession is one of his stronger traits – Dembele has developed a WhoScored.com strength of ‘dribbling’. He averages three successful dribbles per league game, the sixth best return in England’s top tier.
Of the 209 players to attempt 30 or more dribbles this season, Dembele has the best success rate (86.8%) in Europe’s top five leagues. He has the ability to pierce his way through the heart of the midfield, opening up space for teammates to run into and exploit. Given the fluidity of the Tottenham attack, this is vital as a way of creating chances.
However, Dembele is reluctant to play the killer ball in the final third. A player of his ilk should be averaging more than 0.9 key passes per game, particularly given his regular proximity to goal. The 28-year-old boasts the fifth most passes per game (39.6) and the second best pass success rate (86.9%) of all Spurs players this season, yet favours the safer option.
His hesitancy to be incisive can slow down attacks, but it remains a minor flaw in Dembele’s game. On the ball, he’s extremely difficult to shake off. Factor in his ability to retain possession with consummate ease and the midfielder can rightly be considered one of the most important cogs in this Spurs machine. Besides, with the likes of Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son each carrying a sufficient attacking threat, there’s reason to suggest that Dembele needn’t concern himself too much with the creative burden, but rather maintain his midfield presence.
It’s his work off the ball that has most endeared him to supporters this season. Pochettino is renowned for implementing a high-pressing system having been educated at the Marcelo Bielsa school of management. Only Liverpool (24.3) and Leicester (23.3) are averaging more tackles per game than Tottenham (23.1), while Pochettino’s side are averaging more fouls per game (14.1) than any other Premier League team.
Dembele clearly abides to the demands of his manager, with his average of 4.0 tackles per game the third best in the Premier League this season. He has also won possession in the midfield third more times (45) than any other Spurs player. Given the fears that he would become a mere squad player following the rise of Bentaleb, Mason, Dier and Alli, Dembele has carved a niche for himself higher up the pitch.
In an inexperienced Spurs side, Dembele brings an element of composure to the midfield and this resonates throughout the team. As Spurs maintain their quest to secure a top-four berth, Dembele has unexpectedly emerged as a crucial part of Pochettino’s plans.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find live in-game data as well as player and team ratings. You can follow all the scores, statistics, live player and team ratings with their free app.