‘Is this Pochettino’s biggest Spurs challenge yet?’ read the headline to an article on this website before the start of this season. There were a number of reasons that such a question was posed: Tottenham had just finished third in the Premier League, this despite challenging for the title in what was thought to be a two-horse race; the majority of their players had endured disappointing campaigns at Euro 2016 for their respective countries; their closest challengers would strengthen immeasurably.
The main reason was a psychological one. In the first 34 games of last season, Tottenham were dominant entertainers, scoring the most goals and conceding the fewest. In the final four, they capitulated. A 5-1 reverse at Newcastle was their final game, but their campaign truly ended with the 2-2 draw at Chelsea.
‘The Battle of the Bridge,’ it was dubbed, and it was the first instance in which we saw the pressure tell on this young Tottenham side. Nine players were booked – a Premier League record for a single side in one game – as Spurs squandered a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 against one of their bitter enemies. Their challenge was over – Leicester had won the league.
One of the most enduring memories of that crushing disappointment at Stamford Bridge was that of Mousa Dembele gouging the eye of Diego Costa. The previously imperturbable Belgian, leader of this unflappable Spurs side, had cracked. The game’s greatest wind-up merchant had claimed another victim; Dembele’s mask had slipped, and so had Tottenham’s.
If Dembele’s last Premier League appearance saw him at his uncharacteristic worse, Sunday saw him at his typical best. He and his side came full circle in the 1-0 win over Sunderland. The 29-year-old was gleefully welcomed back into a Premier League starting line-up for the first time since his suspension. It was as if he had never left. The Belgian dominated proceedings as he so often does at White Hart Lane. Sunderland were on the receiving end of a 1-0 thrashing.
Tottenham registered 31 shots, the most managed by one side in a single game so far this season. It is only eight fewer than Burnley have had in their opening five games of the season. The only outfielders not to test the excellent Jordan Pickford were Jan Vertonghen and Ben Davies. The hosts completed 392 passes more than their beleaguered opponents, and had 74% of the possession. The irrepressible Heung-min Son had seven shots; Sunderland had just six.
At the centre of it all was Dembele. He was the controlling force in midfield, the effortless driver of this Tottenham machine. He is everything Paul Pogba is intended to be. He played 55 passes in the opposition half – more than 15 of the 20 outfield starters managed altogether. Pochettino’s side have started the season well and remain unbeaten, but there was a piece missing in games against Everton and Liverpool, who fought a midfield battle on level terms. Dembele completes the jigsaw.
Not that we should be surprised. Tottenham’s record in the 24 games their midfield talisman has started since October 2014 reads: W16 D8 L0 F53 A15 Pts56. Their record in the 11 games he has not started in that time reads: W3 D3 L5 F13 A15 Pts12. With him, their points-per-game total is 2.3. Without, it is just 1.09. Tottenham are a great side; Dembele simply makes them – and each of his teammates – better.
The worry for Spurs came after 74 minutes, when he hobbled off the pitch to a chorus of applause from the adoring home faithful. The midfielder’s substitution appeared only to be a precaution.
The same unfortunately cannot be said for Harry Kane or Eric Dier. The England pair both succumbed to more severe looking injuries. But Tottenham are far better prepared to cope with their losses than they are Dembele’s. With both he and Tottenham fully recovered from that capitulation at Stamford Bridge, the focus is firmly on challenging for the title again. With Dembele, it’s certainly possible.