Mousa Dembele is no longer a necessity in the Tottenham midfield, but he remains one of their most significant assets.There was a point when if there was no Dembele, there would be no party. At a risk of sounding too Partridge, it’s now as appropriate to term ‘No Wanyama, no defensive stability’ or ‘No Dier, no calming influence in the defensive third’. The truth is, Mousa Dembele is still one of Tottenham’s best players. Last season, he was considered a quarter of Tottenham’s core: Hugo Lloris, Toby Alderweireld, Mousa Dembele and Harry Kane. 6 months on, it doesn’t feel like Tottenham need him to be fit and on form to function as a team. When he ‘eye-gouged’ Diego Costa at the end of last season, his ban spelled the end of Tottenham’s form, even when the title had already gone.
No team can afford to be the same season after season. Manchester United were the kings of subtle alteration in their domination of the Premier League era, but since Alex Ferguson’s departure they have struggled with the ever-changing demands of the division. Each season is different with sides devising intricate plans for single players in efforts to nullify their threat. It isn’t that Dembele has been targeted and quietened, it’s that Tottenham have successfully moved on from their reliance on the Belgian colossus.
It hasn’t been a smooth transition for Spurs’ midfield. They’ve been plagued by injuries and have relied on newcomer Victor Wanyama to marshal central midfield. Harry Winks has been a welcome addition and offers another useful dynamic, but generally, Tottenham had struggled for form until December. Their midfield has missed the cushion of Toby Alderweireld in defence, they briefly lost the reliability of laying off the ball to Harry Kane, they’ve had to make up for the effort usually put in by Erik Lamela and they’ve been burdened by the poor form of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli.
Now that the majority of those issues have been solved and all is well again, Spurs have the luxury of putting out a comparatively full strength side. Pochettino went with a central midfield of Victor Wanyama and Eric Dier, with the latter often slipping into central defence to form a back three to support Kevin Wimmer in Jan Vertonghen’s absence. On the surface it appeared defensive without Mousa Dembele, but Spurs overran Watford and dominated from start to finish. Last year, that sort of domination seemed inconceivable without the Belgian controlling midfield.
That isn’t to say that Dembele isn’t still one of Spurs’ essential players. He is. If you were to name your best Tottenham side, he would be one of the first 5 names of the team sheet. On form, he is arguably the best central midfielder in the Premier League. Danny Rose’s G.O.A.T sign at the darts on Sunday night was testament to level of respect Dembele has accrued from his peers. If you’re on the opposing side, you’d rather not play against him. I am yet to see a player, let alone a midfielder, completely get the better of him. His strength, ability to shield the ball, glide past players and oversee the transition of defence into attack make him perfect for Spurs in certain games. That is the luxury Spurs now have; they have a handful of players perfect for each opposition.
For now, his form is around the 70% mark. He’s carrying an air of what looks like fatigue, he is quite often giving the ball away and is somewhat off the mark in the final third. His placement on the bench at Vicarage Road was as much grounded in form as it was tactics. Luckily for Pochettino, Dembele at 70% is still a worthwhile asset. When Spurs play Chelsea this week, they will most likely start with Dembele. Why? He will occupy and hassle both Matic and Kante, he will stand in the way of Hazard and he can, when on song, initiate counter attacks. Spurs now have the squad depth in central midfield to tinker with tactics as per game.
Last season Dembele probably reached his peak. It was probably the most emotional, gruelling and demoralising season of his career and a decline in form was inevitable. No longer is he a necessity, but he remains a significant player in the fortune of Tottenham this season.
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