Why world-class Dembele has been compared to Ronaldinho and Maradona

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The 30-year-old has taken his time in coming to prominence in central midfield but his performances have been at an outstanding standard this year

Mauricio Pochettino said last month that if he and his coaching team had got hold of Mousa Dembele when he was 18 or 19 he would have gone on to become of one the best footballers in the world.

He compared the midfielder to Jay-Jay Okocha, Diego Maradona, Ivan De La Pena and Ronaldinho – all ex-teammates of the Tottenham manager – describing him as one of the five “genius” players he has had the pleasure of encountering in his career.

Dembele’s ability on the ball has never been in doubt but it has been other factors limiting his potential. As an attacker, when he first came to England, he was not productive enough. He played throughout his time in the Netherlands with AZ as a No. 10 or a wide attacker and was signed with that in mind by Fulham.

Futhermore, long-standing ankle problems were only rectified with surgery last summer and a long ban impeded his start to that campaign.

But gradually his development into a deep-lying player - who often comes into contact with the ball - has taken place over the course of the last three seasons under Pochettino. This calendar year in particular Dembele has found himself as the focus of an increasing appreciation society.

Spurs had a run of tough fixtures a few weeks back in which four of five games came against Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Juventus – in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16.

Dembele was arguably man of the match in all four. At the Juventus Stadium he ran the show, leaving Sami Khedira memorably trailing in his wake with one second-half shimmy.

Pochettino, and Roberto Martinez, his Belgium manager for that matter, have no qualms about trusting Dembele in that position in tough away encounters like that, as evidenced by his selection for a qualifier against Greece in Piraeus in September.

Mousa Dembele Tottenham

One thing he gives his teams – and what he could give any midfield – is a unique ability to tilt the pitch at will. Most deep midfielders take possession of the ball in the middle third and look to circulate the ball quickly.

Dembele will quite often draw opponents in and seek to dribble. If he goes by one opponent, just one, then that is enough to ensure Spurs have a numerical advantage elsewhere on the field.

The next pass may go to Christian Eriksen – in space outside the opposition box – or to one of the full-backs on the overlap. But it is unquestionable that initial instigation with a dummy, a feint or a dribble puts rivals on the back foot.

Not only that but he is tough as nails. A strong lower body gives him the balance and the resilience to protect the ball and hold off opponents no matter what situation he finds himself in.

A youth spent playing small-sided court football gives him that extra advantage, according to those who know his qualities well. He is also brave in possession and always looks for the ball.

Marcelo Real Madrid Mousa Dembele Tottenham

A video was doing the rounds on social media recently where a number of Spurs players were asked to name the best player at the club. Dele Alli, Victor Wanyama, Danny Rose and Harry Winks all plumped for Dembele.

That’s because he’s the type of player that can be trusted in possession and his good-natured personality mean he is respected as a silent leader in the dressing room.

His presence allows teams to dictate the tempo of the play – particularly important for sides like Spurs and Belgium who demand most of the possession – and is incisive and penetrative with his passes in the final third.

As Spurs are more likely to encounter well-structured defensive units given their improvement in possession under Pochettino, Dembele becomes an increasingly influential figure.

 

His colleagues in an attacking sense appreciate his constant availability - and presence of mind to find space - as well as his ability to run games in-play.

It can be hard to get attention in this Spurs team given the goal-scoring exploits of Harry Kane and the focus that goes on Dele Alli. Son Heung-Min, too, is in the form of his life, while the consistency of Eriksen is rarely overlooked.

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That means Dembele is free to work relatively unencumbered by expectations on scoring goals or giving assists. He is not harassed from the outside in going about his midfield work.

It may have taken a while but the time to sing Dembele’s praises has come.

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