[This is another in mpachniuk's series of Beginnier's Guides to Tottenham Hotspur players. He keeps cranking them out, I keep posting them. --Menno]
Player: Mousa Dembélé
Primary Position: Central Midfielder, Winger, Attacking Midfielder
Strengths: Former Spurs boss Martin Jol, then the manager of Fulham F.C., once said that Mousa Dembélé was the best player he has seen on the ball since, well, ever. High praise from someone involved in professional football for well over 40 years. Yet no matter how hyperbolic that statement is, it is not entirely inaccurate. Some can beat players more decisively, many are more mesmerizing with the ball at their feet, but few can glide across the pitch like Mousa Dembélé. He is a smooth footballer, silky, and someone who you want to watch play the sport. But his game is more than just vanity. He is powerful on the ball and can muscle defenders who challenge him. He also does not give the ball away. If you are looking to possess the ball, Dembélé is your man. He won’t pass another team out of the game, but he also will not be sloppy and provide counterattacking opportunities to an opponent. Finally, he can eliminate players through the dribble. He has a great tendency to bait defenders to dive in, take positive forward touches around them, and then seal them off with his strength. It is a useful quality to have, and one that Tottenham profits from when he is in the side.
Weaknesses: The knock on Dembélé is that he lacks a final product. Few will doubt his ability to maintain possession and beat players off the dribble but many will argue that once he gets into dangerous positions, he squanders chances. He lacks a powerful shot and save a goal against Norwich City on his September 2012 debut, (which caused the author to immediately purchase his jersey!) he does not score goals. He is not a great forward passer either. He doesn’t ping long passes across the pitch to open up defenses and he has shown a dearth of precision and nuance to slip that killer ball through to an oncoming winger or forward. This is frustrating for someone who is so effortlessly able to find threatening pockets on the field. Lastly, he cannot take on the defensive role in a double pivot. He is neither positionally disciplined nor soul crushing enough in tackle to take on this responsibility. His game would be gelded in this role anyway.
History at Spurs: Bought at the end of the 2012 summer transfer window, Dembélé was hailed as a replacement for Real Madrid bound Luka Modrić, even though he plays nothing like him. Tottenham doled out 15 million pounds for his services and he was the most promising player to join Spurs in the early days of the André Villas-Boas era. As noted above, he scored on his debut and just a month later put in a dominating performance against Manchester United to help Spurs earn three away points at Old Trafford for the first time in 23 years. Dembélé solidified his place as a first eleven fixture for the remainder of the 2012-13 season and for the better part of the following 2013-14 campaign. In his first season under new manager Mauricio Pochettino, the 2014-15 season, Dembélé played more sparingly but was a constant in the first team even when he wasn’t starting.
Role on the team: Tricky, this one. He is maybe not the favored player in any of the midfield spots heading into preseason but he can do a job at them all. He is certainly our most versatile player. Considering that Poch will stick with his favored 4-2-3-1 formation, it is then the opponent who will dictate where, and if, Dembélé plays. He is the man to bring on if you want calm in the side or if you want to hold the ball. He also brings an element of steel to the midfield if he is dispatched as an attacking central midfielder or out wide as a right winger in this setup.
*STOP READING IF YOU WERE JUST IN THIS FOR ANALYSIS*
Prediction: Much too talented not to play, but too ineffective to hold down a regular place in the team, Dembélé will find minutes because he brings qualities to the table that others on the roster do not possess. An interesting use may be his deployment on the right side of an attacking three as we saw in the first two games of this season. While I still think he may be best suited as a central attacking midfielder, he has put in two positive shifts in this position. His work rate has been stellar, he has relieved pressure through possession, and he brings some tenacity to our team when playing this role. The past two years have seen Spurs blown out by formidable competition and much of these downfalls were due to weakness in our midfield. Dembélé situated further up the pitch may be part of the answer to nipping this trend in the bud. It is odd to say this about a 28 year old, but I still think Dembélé has room to grow. He has all the qualities of a world class footballer and, if he can be better in the final third, we will see him lock down a first eleven place and be a force in the Premier League.