Tottenham’s unexpected position at the head of the Premier League’s chasing pack this season is the result of many factors.
Much has been made of the weakness of the usual contenders. The likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are far further off the pace than would have been predicted, while Liverpool and Manchester United have also regressed.
The influence of manager Mauricio Pochettino has also rightly been given much credit for Spurs’ success. His team have an aggressive, animalistic style. They hunt the ball as a pack and overwhelm their beleaguered opponents with energy and unending enthusiasm.
Pochettino‘s team are an ensemble, a living machine where each member pulls their weight, combining to form a remarkable whole.
Of Spurs’ players, Dele Alli and Harry Kane have been most often singled out for praise.
Kane, who recently passed 20 league goals for the second consecutive season, is the literal spearhead of the only team capable of challenging Leicester City for this season’s title. His contributions beyond simply scoring goals make him a genuine contender for the Player of the Year award.
The same goes for Alli, who has adapted to life in the top flight with remarkable ease. Still a teenager, he leaves his influence on every Tottenham performance, scoring or creating a goal more often than not.
Others like Eric Dier, Kyle Walker, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld have also been hugely influential, but the role of Mousa Dembele has been understated and perhaps misunderstood by many observers.
Dembele was woeful last season.
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For the second consecutive year, weighed down by injury and hopelessly out of form, he seemed destined for a summer sale. Epitaphs bemoaning a waste of tremendous and self-evident talents would have accompanied his seemingly inevitable departure to a less challenging level.
Appropriately enough for an article published at Easter, Dembele has been resurrected this season and comfortably exceeded the solid levels he achieved in his first year at Spurs in 2012-13.
He has doubled his best goalscoring season, netting four times so far, but what he gives the team is not really quantified in statistics except one. Spurs haven’t lost a league game with Dembele on the pitch since the opening day of the season.
The big Belgian’s strengths are obvious. His great physical strength, in combination with phenomenal ball control, allows him to either glide past opposition players or just bounce off them. Either way, he simply does not concede possession.
With him on the pitch, Spurs have the best midfield in England.
Dembele is the release valve.
Dier, among the Division’s finest defensive midfielders, cannot be overwhelmed with a player of Dembele‘s physical stature alongside him.
Eriksen, Alli and Erik Lamela are freed to interchange positions and take chances with the unflappable Dembele securing the space behind them.
Dembele is less an artist and more a craftsman.
He is immensely skillful, but it is his unceasingly productive work rather than his creativity that produces the platform upon which Spurs’ attackers can play.
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He has not assisted on a single goal this season—even Dier has one—but he facilitates for team-mates.
His tendency to float across midfield, avoiding tackles while not advancing the ball particularly far is a strength in Pochettino‘s system rather than the weakness it was under previous managers.
Andre Villas-Boas demanded rapid vertical passes and didn’t place a premium on Dembele‘s ability to manufacture time and space for his team-mates.
For Pochettino‘s team, Dembele fills all the spaces between the midfield specialists.
In his injury-enforced absence against West Ham, Spurs lacked control and were overrun in midfield. Alli was withdrawn to fill Dembele‘s position, and his dynamism was sorely missed further upfield.
Borussia Dortmund possess an arguably superior midfield to Tottenham’s best selection, but the omission of Dembele from the lineup selected to face them in the UEFA Europa League was tantamount to surrender.
Pochettino is evidently aware of Dembele‘s importance, choosing to rest him from that European tie in favour of his preference of domestic football.
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Dembele‘s revival is not the only reason that Spurs are contenders for this season’s title, but he is among the most important.
Tottenham have England’s strongest midfield, and Dembele is the foundation of it. He leaves an oversized mark on every match, allowing his team-mates to specialise while he fills in the gaps.
If Spurs do achieve the seemingly impossible and overhaul Leicester City, Dembele will be deserving of more than a share of the glory.