In 1987, after a quite solid ten-plus year career as a starting pitcher for three major league baseball teams, Dennis Eckersley abruptly changed careers at age 31. Well, he still continued to throw baseballs for a living, it’s just that he stopped his career as a starting pitcher. From 1987 until 1998, Eckersley was one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, pitching until he was 43 years old. In 1992, he won the American League’s Cy Young (best pitcher) and Most Valuable Player awards. (Side note: this was quite dumb of the awards voters but he really was very good).
Now, good relief pitchers don’t have as much value as good starting pitchers. They simply do not play enough to contribute as many wins. But the move from starter to reliever as a pitcher ages, as their arm wears down and they cannot throw their fastball with the same oomph 100 pitches a night, is a tried and true career path in major league baseball.
Which brings us to Mousa Dembele. Also 31, Dembele seemed destined to move on to pasture this summer in a less taxing league like Serie A or the Chinese Super League. His body simply cannot give 3000 Premier League minutes anymore, which we’ve all witnessed over the past couple years. A deal never materialized for a move - whether by his or Daniel Levy’s choice is still unclear.
So, what to do? Dembele when healthy and moving is massively talented and useful for Spurs. Through two matches, Dembele seems primed to become Spurs’ closer, their Mousa Dembeckersley (h/t Caley). Dembele game on in the 68th minute against Newcastle, and immediately calmed the match down for Spurs, who had been struggling to keep possession and protect their 2-1 lead. Dembele just did Dembele things when he came on: protect the ball, give the back line an outlet when pressed, and keep the ball moving.
Against Fulham, Spurs were chasing a goal after an incredibly shaky start to the second half saw them tied. Again, Dembele came off the bench, offering Spurs just what they needed. He replaced Davinson Sanchez, and Spurs moved back to the Dierbele 4-2-3-1 of yore, and immediately wrested control of the match back. Even more, when Dier came off for Lamela in the 73 minute, Dembele was Spurs’ only remaining true central midfielder. Fulham did not record a shot after the 73rd minute.
Players aging into super sub roles is not new in soccer. But typically we have thought of them as attacking players. Olivier Giroud comes to mind, scoring a bonkers 17 goals in about 1200 minutes as a substitute over the past 5 seasons, running at tired legs even as his body cannot go 90 minutes week in and week out anymore. But the midfield closer is something different, with Dembele’s skillset making a planned substitution sensible regardless of the situation.
Trying to maintain a lead, Dembele can offer Spurs his one-of-a-kind possession and retention skills. Chasing a match, Dembele can win the ball back, shuttle the ball forward on the dribble, and even be a lone holding midfielder potentially. 30 minutes a match for 38 matches is only 1200 minutes. Maybe Spurs can wring some peak-Dembele performances out of him against top-6 sides and in UCL matches, getting a throwback starter’s performance for 75 minutes, without taxing him week in and week out.
Regardless, it’s great to see Pochettino finding a role for Moose. Last season ended so stressfully, with Kane’s injury and Spurs struggling to hold onto Champions League, appreciating what seemed to be Dembele’s last couple months at Spurs was not possible. But he’s back, and looks like the Moose of old, just with less of it. I’m going to try to savor those 25-35 minutes a weekend, and I will try not to resent minutes 45-60, when we wonder why Spurs are struggling to control the match against a mediocre team, only to have Dembele come on and remind us why, in so many ways, he has defined the Pochettino era at Spurs.