Dembele discusses how he can be most effective at Tottenham
Mousa Dembele says his versatility means he could play different roles to suit different tactics and opponents after being named the man of the match in Saturday’s goalless draw with Liverpool.
The enigma that is Mousa Dembele refuses to go away.
Just when it seems he might have run out of chances at Tottenham, that he has no place in Mauricio Pochettino’s strongest XI and that he may be restricted to outings in the Europa League, the Belgian reminds everyone that he is one of the most talented players in the squad.
The question, as it has been for so long, is where he is most effective – and whether he can maintain the consistency that has largely eluded him so far.
The 28-year-old has been used in various positions since his arrival at White Hart Lane in 2012, largely playing in front of the back four but also having a spell in a more advanced role behind the striker under Pochettino at the start of 2015.
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Dembele was then dropped altogether and endured a frustrating end to the season – but he started the first four games of the current campaign in a new role on the right side of the front four.
“It is a good position for him because he has the quality to play wide and go inside,” said Pochettino at the time.
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However, an ankle injury suffered against Everton ruled him out for six games and in that time Erik Lamela has surged into form, scoring three goals in his last six games on the right flank, while Andros Townsend is providing competition and summer signings Heung-Min Son and Clinton Njie give Pochettino further options out in wide roles.
Meanwhile, Eric Dier and Dele Alli have proven themselves to be formidable central midfielders – and Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb are still to return from injury to challenge them.
It has therefore been unclear where Dembele would fit into Pochettino’s best line-up, or even his reserve side. But with Dier, Mason, Bentaleb and Tom Carroll all unavailable against Liverpool, Dembele was required to return to a deep-lying central midfield role on Saturday.
It was an important opportunity and he seized it with both hands in a masterful display, showing his strength and footwork to retain possession when Liverpool were pressing frantically, and playing a key role defensively as the Lilywhites kept their fourth clean sheet of the season in the goalless draw.
Dembele says he will continue to deliberate with Pochettino over how he can be most effective, but he believes his versatility means he could play different roles against different opponents.
Clutching his bottle of champagne after being named the man of the match, a cheery Dembele said: “It [my best position] is something we need to discuss but in the end where the manager puts me I need to try to impress him. Everyone has to do this and it is something between me and the gaffer that we need to sort out.
“At the beginning of the season I was on the right and I feel I had some good games. After that I had my injury but I was very happy in this position - but I like it in [central] midfield as well.
“I think it depends what tactic we play and what is the aim of the game, and that [decides] where I prefer to play - it’s not easy.
“It depends what team [we’re playing] as well. A team like Liverpool, there is a lot of space for me because they try to attack as well. But if it is another team, maybe a smaller team, it could be [better playing] from the right, as you know they are sitting there and I want to make a difference. It really depends on the team.”
Dembele went on: “The injury was very frustrating, of course. Last season I didn’t have a lot of games to be honest. I started well in the pre-season and the first few games I played well and the manager was happy and he spoke with me.
“Then I was injured so he was disappointed. I said to myself ‘ok you started well and you have the injury, you need to work hard because the team is doing well so you can understand why you’re not playing’.
“Ok, the occasion was there [against Liverpool] because there were a lot of injuries, but I’m happy. I played a good game and we played a good game as a team. We’re disappointed we didn’t get three points but overall I’m happy.
“Of course I know it’s a big opportunity for me but I’m not losing sleep over it because I have confidence in myself. I know I have this chance but there will be other chances and I know I need to be ready.”
Dembele has revealed he did not feel fully fit against Liverpool, having only previously played for nine minutes against Swansea after returning from injury.
“I only had a few training sessions so I didn’t feel that ready to be honest because I had some small things,” he said. “But the team is playing well and it is easier to adapt, to come in with a team like this with confidence and in these circumstances.
“We knew Liverpool would be very motivated in front of the new manager. You could see that they ran much more than maybe they used to - but we knew that and we knew that we had to run more.”
Dembele admits the competition for places is tougher than ever at Tottenham, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Last season as well there were a lot of players in each position and if we want to be with the top teams you have this so it is very positive I think,” he said. “This year and last year it’s quite hard to hold down a place.”
And the midfielder believes Spurs can realistically aim for the top four this season: “Of course, or else we don’t play - we have a good chance,” he said.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs