During this summer’s U20 World Cup, a competition won by England, many observers looked at the very good play of Tottenham youngster Josh Onomah in manager Paul Simpson’s midfield pivot and drew a direct comparison with another Tottenham central midfielder — Mousa Dembele.
Onomah, who is expected to have a bigger role in Tottenham’s first team under Mauricio Pochettino this season, showed a similar set of skills to the bruising Belgian. Against young players his own age, Onomah used his physical strength to his advantage in midfield, bossing the midfield with his size and showing both a good passing range and a willingness to beat people on the dribble.
And apparently, it wasn’t only Tottenham fans who noticed the similarities — Dembele did too, and he referenced it in an interview ahead of Spurs’ second International Champions Cup match against AS Roma, which will be held in New Jersey’s Red Bull Arena on Tuesday night.
"The older players talk a lot about this, and we've spoken about Josh a lot as well. Everybody knows it, and I think of his generation he's one of the best. Maybe there are a lot of similarities -- he can drive the ball as well, he's very strong and quick too.
"It's a matter of the last step I think. Everyone saw the way he is training now in preseason -- the hope for him that it's his year. He has the quality, everybody knows it.
"I think the year before last Josh played more and showed everyone he can play in the Premier League. Last year, everybody saw Harry Winks and everybody knows he has a lot of quality. It's a good thing to have competition."
Onomah himself recently noted that he’s more comfortable playing in the center of midfield — though he’s happy to play anywhere — and was pleased when a reporter compared his game to Dembele’s last week.
"Oh yeah? That's a great compliment because he's an amazing player.
"He's someone that I look forward to playing with in the near future. When I was growing up and I was watching him, before he was Spurs, when he was at Fulham, I liked the way he played. I thought we played similarly, and for other people to see that is just a great compliment."
Dembele has been hugely important to Tottenham’s play in each of the past two seasons’ title challenges. His strength on the ball and ability to dominate midfields means that Spurs rarely are overrun in the center of the pitch, but at age 30 his body is starting to show signs that it’s beginning to break down. Mousa revealed that he had been dealing with persistent foot pain last season, an issue for which he had surgery this offseason, and that he’s constantly managing pain.
"Yeah. But I don't think there are any footballers playing at 100 percent, without anything wrong. All my career I've played with things -- this was too much and that's why I had to do something.
"All through last season I had a bit of pain. But it was always bearable until the end, so I wanted to have an operation. It's not really on my mind. When you have pain, you have pain and it's always like 30 percent there.
"Of course, there were some games when I was struggling a lot but there are different solutions to solve it -- anti-inflammatory and this kind of thing, so the pain goes away a bit. But I told myself at the end of the season, I needed to do something, I can't go on like this. The club gave me the freedom to do it, and now it's much better, so I'm happy.
"The foot is OK [since the surgery]. In the beginning it was a bit difficult but I've a lot of training sessions behind me now and it gets better and better to be honest."
It’s difficult to replace a player like Dembele, but the rise of Onomah and his fellow academy graduate Harry Winks could be why Spurs have yet to address central midfield in the transfer market this summer. With the exception of (possibly spurious?) links to Maximilian Meyer and Mateo Kovacic, most of the transfer speculation has centered around the right back position vacated by Kyle Walker.
But if Mauricio Pochettino thinks Onomah could be a rotation player in the pivot next season, he hasn’t given much indication yet. Onomah has been mostly deployed as an attacking midfielder, and that’s where he played Saturday night against PSG. Winks, by contrast, is a deep-lying playmaker that, while without Dembele’s strength on the ball, is expected to get significant minutes this season.
We may know more by the end of Spurs’ preseason tour, or we may not. But Onomah has shown a lot of promise the past two seasons, and has raised his stock significantly this summer with his international play. Now, to use Dembele’s words, he just needs to take “the last step.”