How Mousa Dembele became the Premier League’s near-untackleable midfielder at Spurs

How Mousa Dembele became the Premier League’s near-untackleable midfielder at Spurs

According to reports, Mousa Dembele is close to leaving Tottenham for Chinese Super League club Beijing Guoan.

The 31-year-old’s exit marks the end of an era for a Premier League cult icon, who has sometimes gone under the radar but has always exuded a supreme level of talent.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Dembele. For some time, he struggled to find his best position at Spurs until Mauricio Pochettino began to use him as a commanding central midfielder.

But with one problem solved, another emerged. Dembele has been thwarted by injuries and fitness problems over the last few seasons, culminating in his reported decision to leave for a slower-paced league.

Regardless of those difficulties, the Belgian will be fondly remembered for his stellar displays for Tottenham, the best of which saw him prove to be near-untackleable.

Such is Dembele’s strength, dribbling ability and passing accuracy, he has often proved impossible to dispossess. We’ve looked into the stats behind his incredible capacity to simply keep the ball.

From striker to central midfielder

First, some background. Dembele arrived in England from Dutch side AZ Alkmaar in 2010, playing under Mark Hughes before former Spurs manager Martin Jol took over at Fulham.

He had been an attacking midfielder or a striker in the Eredivisie, scoring 37 goals in 160 appearances in total for AZ. His goal tally dropped off towards the end of his stay in Holland, but his performances were good enough to earn a move to the Premier League.

In his first season at Craven Cottage, Dembele impressed in an attacking role but finished the campaign with just five goals. When Jol came in he moved Dembele into central midfield, where he became even less of a goal threat but more of a complete player.

At the beginning of the 2012/13 campaign, Dembele shone in a 3-2 defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford, a performance that demonstrated his ability to make the step up to a team like Spurs. He sealed his move to White Hart Lane before the end of August.

And by the end of September, he was replicating his display for Fulham at Old Trafford with Tottenham, playing brilliantly once again and this time ending up on the right side of a 3-2 scoreline.

His second season in north London marked the beginning of a difficult patch. Injuries and inconsistencies, coupled with misjudged managerial changes at the club, meant Dembele was in and out of the team. In the summer of 2014, new head coach Mauricio Pochettino didn’t quite know what to do with him.

Finding his best role under Pochettino

In 2014/15, Pochettino’s debut campaign at Spurs, Dembele made 26 Premier League appearances, the fewest he had made in any season for the club up to that point.

Pochettino preferred a central midfield pairing of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb, which was indicative of the Argentinian’s faith in youth while also emphasising Dembele’s struggles.

The 80-time Belgium international’s talent was there for all to see, but Pochettino simply couldn’t find a regular place for him. Dembele sometimes started on the right of an attacking midfield trio in a 4-3-3 formation, but his eye for goal from his days as a striker had all but disappeared by then.

In a prospective transfer that sounds remarkable now, Dembele was linked with a move to Sunderland in the summer of 2015. A deal failed to materialise, though, which turned out to be for the best – for both the player and Tottenham.

Spurs opted against signing a much-needed defensive midfielder in the summer of 2015, with Pochettino instead converting Eric Dier from a utility defender into a shield for his back four.

A falling out between Pochettino and Bentaleb, plus an early-season injury to Ryan Mason, meant Dier lacked a capable partner. Dembele was finally given his moment to return to central midfield, and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Dribble king and pass master – the stats

Since his Premier League debut for Tottenham, Dembele has a better dribble success rate (77.87%) than any other Premier League player (with a minimum of 200 attempted dribbles). What’s more, only seven Premier League players (with a minimum of 1,000 passes) have a better passing accuracy percentage than Dembele (90.95%) in that time.

His dominance in those areas has mostly presented itself since his return to central midfield in 2015/16. Dembele was arguably the most influential player in Spurs’ title push that year, giving the team a greater control of matches in midfield.

That continued into the next two campaigns. In 2017/18 especially, Dembele produced a string of stunning displays in the second half of the season against the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Juventus, but niggling injuries were beginning to take their toll.

As a result of those ongoing fitness issues (and Dier’s current injury), Pochettino has mostly used a midfield three of Harry Winks, Moussa Sissoko and Christian Eriksen this season, meaning Tottenham have sometimes lacked control in the middle of the park – Dembele’s absence is the primary cause of this.

Dembele’s dribbling statistics can predominantly be put down to his strength. Even when he overruns the ball, he is able to hold off an opponent at his back with his imposing frame. Add to that an unmatched ability to drop the shoulder and change direction and the result is a majestic midfield dribbler.

As for passing, Dembele usually likes to keep things simple. He is rarely expressive and doesn’t really have a wide passing range, but that’s not what he is (or was) in the team for. His short, accurate passes simply help Spurs to keep possession while the team’s more creative players find openings.

The future for Tottenham and Dembele

According to the London Evening Standard, Dembele is “attracted by the slower-pace of football in the Far East after becoming frustrated by the amount of injuries he has suffered in the past two years in England.”

This makes plenty of sense. There has been a degree of bafflement around Tottenham’s reported decision to allow Dembele to leave for just £9-11m, but his style of play – coupled with his injury problems – makes staying in the fast-paced Premier League unsustainable.

On top of that, he turns 32 in July and is out of contract at the end of the season. Despite their apparent refusal to sign new players, Spurs – like Dembele – are looking to the future.

As previously brought up, Pochettino has somewhat settled on a midfield three of Winks, Sissoko and Eriksen this term, a set-up that sometimes functions as a diamond with Dele Alli at the tip.

Winks is playing the role Dembele would be filling if fitter and younger. On the aforementioned list of the best Premier League passers since Dembele’s Tottenham debut, Winks is just two places below Dembele with a 90.85% accuracy rate.

This season in the Premier League, of the Spurs players who have attempted more than one dribble, only Juan Foyth (100%) and Dembele (87.5%) have a better dribble success rate than Winks (84.62%).

Whether Winks has a regular long-term future in this position remains to be seen. Tottenham perhaps need a stronger, more controlling midfielder to sit either in front of the back four or next to Dier. If the Londoners could sign a young Dembele, they probably would.