I can already hear the howls of indignation from some of you. Yes, Harry Kane scored two amazing goals and played exceptionally well in Saturday's North London Derby win against Arsenal. It would be the easy choice to give the Man of the Match award to Harry Kane, and he would certainly deserve it. However, sometimes a team's best player isn't the one who scores the winning goal even necessarily the player whose name the crowd sings at the end, but the player who makes the team work at peak efficiency. In this match, Harry Kane was superlative, but I'm giving MOTM award to Mousa Dembélé.
Since his return to the starting lineup, Dembélé has been nothing short of a revelation. He's been routinely panned by Spurs fans and the writing staff here for his mediocre performances since joining from Fulham in 2012, criticized for spending too much time on the ball, for lacking vision, for passing sideways instead of forwards.
At Tottenham, Dembélé's mostly been shuttled back into the midfield pivot as a box-to-box midfielder, and he's filled that role adequately, if not spectacularly. It's easy to forget that he started his career as a striker and played mostly as an attacking midfielder while at Fulham. During Nacer Chadli's compassionate leave, Pochettino reintroduced Dembélé to the side, but higher up the field in his old position, and with a slightly different role.
What made the difference in the North London Derby was his ability to press high up the field. Against an Arsenal side that was uncharacteristically content to play defend-and-counter football – I quipped during the game that this must be the Mirror Universe Arsenal and all the players should be sporting little goatees – Dembélé's ability to pressure defenders like Francis Coquelin high up the pitch kept the Gunners on their back heels for the majority of the match. Dembélé similarly harried the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck, reducing their effectiveness on the ball and taking them out of the game for large stretches. The high press was the key to unlocking a bunkered defense, which is something Tottenham has struggled with for years.
And when Spurs got the ball back, it was Dembélé who was the creative engine for the team, making forward, incisive runs, drawing defenders inward through movement, and finding open teammates on the wing as Arsenal collapsed inwards to compensate. Against Arsenal, Dembélé completed 14 of 17 passes in Spurs' attacking third, including three shot assists, and had three successful take-ons, all in Arsenal's half.
But perhaps most telling is what happened when Mousa was NOT on the field. After being subbed off for Nacer Chadli late in the second half, Tottenham's possession dropped off. The urgency of the high press fell away, and Arsenal began to inch forward more and more into Tottenham's half. Spurs' offense didn't work with the same level of efficiency. The press wasn't as emphatic. While the winning goal came while Mousa was on the bench, you could see a difference in the way the team operated the minute he left the field.
One of the reasons why we all loved Luka Modric so much was not his ability to score goals, but his work rate, his vision, and his ability to be the guy who passed to the guy who made the assist for the goal. Mousa Dembélé was brought into the Tottenham side two days after Modric was sold to Real Madrid in 2012, and while a direct comparison to Modric isn't fair – Dembélé isn't anywhere near as talented as Modric, nor does he fill the same deep-lying playmaker role – just like Modric was the engine at the heart of Redknapp's Spurs, Dembélé is the key to making Pochettino's pressing system work. He ended the match without any goals or assists, but had he not been there I'm not sure Spurs win this match.
Pochettino's decision to reintegrate Mousa Dembélé in to the team as a "defensive #10" was a stroke of genius, and Dembele has rewarded his faith in him by putting in by far his best performance of the season. For now, there's no reason barring injury or rotation why he shouldn't start every match in that position from here on out.
By awarding Dembélé my Man of the Match award I am in no way minimizing the play or impact of Harry Kane – he was astounding on Saturday, and deserves every accolade that he has been given for his play against Arsenal. But to give the award to Kane feels... too easy, and minimizes what was a thorough dismantling of a good Arsenal team. Sing Harry Kane's name – by all means, he deserves it – but today I'm celebrating the contributions of Dembélé, Tottenham's key player and the unsung hero of Spurs' North London Derby win.