At the end of last season, Mousa Dembele was responsible for one of the year’s ugliest moments. His apparent rake of Diego Costa’s eyes was the low point of the fractious encounter between Tottenham and Chelsea and it earned the Belgian midfielder a lengthy retrospective ban.
That game was full of nastiness and from as early as the first-half it had pulsed with aggression. The Dembele moment endures, however because, as well as being reprehenisble, it was so out of character: he is among the most even-tempered players in the Premier League and little in his career to that point had suggested him capable of such a loss of judgement.
But on Sunday, during the North London derby, Tottenham rode Dembele’s typical cool again. As a player, he can often seem at odds with a game’s climate and that proved essential in the hot house Emirates. Arsenal are not a physical team and it’s rare for their games with Spurs to descend into anything resembling that Stamford Bridge anarchy, but it’s a lively fixture nonetheless and one which demands the right doses of ice and fire.
Mauricio Pochettino had suffered a tricky week: Leicester had frustrated his players at White Hart Lane and, four days later, his team embarrassed him at Wembley against Leverkusen. Injuries and declining confidence had stymied Tottenham and, with Dele Alli joining the absentee list earlier in the weekend, the derby could hardly have come at a worse time. Arsenal had not lost in any competition since the opening day of the season and, all things considered, it seemed likely that Spurs’ local enemy would put paid to their own unbeaten record.
That they did not was largely attributable to Dembele.
In theory, he’s the antithesis of a derby player. He’s never too up, never too down, and his mood isn’t influenced by circumstance or occassion. He is not, for instance, a player ever likely to be infected by the fever of a local rivalry and though that should superficially seem a weakness, it was really his greatest strength on Sunday.
Dembele is not afraid. His confidence in his touch and in his ability to retain possession is near total and irrespective of a game’s pattern, he typically plays in identical fashion. He shifts his feet, he moves the ball, he pirouettes away anyone seeking to deny him space; whether it’s West Bromwich Albion at home or Arsenal away, the aesthetic is the same.
In certain situations, that transmits to his teammates. Statistically, Dembele was impressive at the Emirates and his pass-completion percentage and ball-retrieval rate illustrated his literal contribution. But more pertinent, perhaps, was the nature with which he conducted his work. In a tactical system which had been tweaked to accomodate a third centre-half, he was his usual stable safe and that was at least partly responsible for both the way Tottenham settled into the game and, eventually, recovered to parity within it. His actual footballing output was, of course, an essential part of a hard-earned point, but the baseline he established early in the game was more critical. Jittery visiting nerves were settled by seeing him drive up the pitch while swatting away home players, and his willingness to take possession in any situation provided some relief for the hastily created back-three. Long before he surged into the Arsenal box and drew a clumsy foul from Laurent Koscielny, he had helped to purge any sense of inferiority that Tottenham had carried into the game.
Although performing this way by design, Dembele’s improvement over the last two years shows a growing autonomy within his game. Under previous managers, his output often reflected the collective mood. When the team was ponderous, his distribution and movement were often lateral. When Tottenham held the advantage in games, he would begin to look more progressive. It would be a mistake to now claim him to be a definitively vertical player, but there has evidently been a changing of his responsibilities: Dembele is no longer the team’s appendix and, rather than being a product of its shape and success, he now helps to define those conditions. He has, in effect, become the guardian of Tottenham’s momentum. When they become docile, he’s the one who breaks through a pressing line. When their passing isn’t ambitious enough, he shoulders the risk. There are other players around him capable of disrupting an opponent’s shape, but few as effective at creating fractures in the middle of the pitch.
That’s valuable in any game. In a derby, though, when gaining and maintaining momentum is essential to the creation of pressure and the quietening of a home crowd, it’s vital.
But yesterday, to view Dembele through his mechanical and tactical function was to miss the point. He did all the things mentioned above, but he did them in a certain way, As a footballer, he often appears indifferent to his own ability and that germinates a curious empowerment. Other players always react emotionally to strong passages of play – just as fragility is nearly always infectious – but it’s something else entirely for them to watch that strength exerted with such apparent ease.
That was the essence of Dembele’s contribution this weekend. On the one hand, he fulfilled his footballing obligations by altering the temperament of the game and being a reliable haven for possession, but on the other he managed to lead his team with an authoratative-but-effective calm.
That’s who he is a player, that’s what he means to Spurs: the oil in the gears, the elixir to the mind.