Dembele is now a key man under Pochettino as Spurs boss highlights balance between attack and defence
At the end of last season, and during the summer, it was unclear if Mousa Dembele had a future at Tottenham. Now Spurs could arguably do with two of him.
Perhaps that is why they have been looking at Fulham’s French forward Moussa Dembele – who is no relation of the Lilywhites’ midfielder.
The question of where Dembele is most effective at Tottenham is a long-running one and the answer seems to keep changing – but now in a good way.
In previous seasons, Spurs managers have tried to get the best out of a supremely talented player but sometimes ponderous player by trying him in different roles – in front of the back four and in attacking positions – and they have often been frustrated, to the point where the 28-year-old only started one of Spurs’ final 14 games last term.
Pochettino stated at the start of this campaign that he needed “to try to find the best position for him” and he has also moved Dembele around since then. The difference now is that he has been impressing in each of his roles.
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The Belgian started the season on the right side of the front four, with Spurs’ head coach declaring he “has the quality to play wide and go inside”.
Dembele played well in the role but at the end of August an ankle injury ruled him out for a month. When he returned, he was given the central role behind the striker and he responded with goals in three successive games against Bournemouth, Aston Villa and Anderlecht, the third of those being a late 25-yard winner.
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Suddenly Dembele was providing the goals and assists that he always looked capable of, and he admitted he was trying to be “more selfish” as the No10, adding: “When I’m in more attacking roles I try to think ‘I need to be dangerous… I need to shoot more’ and it’s helping me at the moment.”
It seemed Dembele had made an important breakthrough but in early November he suddenly returned to a station in front of the defence, swapping with Dele Alli.
There have certainly been positives to that change. Alli has since scored four times for Spurs, while Dembele has remained a key figure, using his strength and power to help Pochettino’s side win and retain possession in addition to driving forward purposefully and committing players to create space for others.
Tottenham have only lost two league games since the first day of the season – against Newcastle and Leicester in the last six weeks – and on both occasions Dembele was absent from the starting line-up due to injury. He was also missing when Spurs were held to a 1-1 draw at Everton at the start of 2016.
Put together the games he has started and Spurs have won five top-flight fixtures in a row, including Saturday’s 3-1 victory at Crystal Palace, when he put in a fine all-round display.
There is still a question whether he is more useful to Tottenham in this deep-lying role or whether his ability to beat a man in tight areas might mean he would be more effective closer to the opponents’ penalty box – particularly as Spurs are frequently facing teams who are sitting deep and denying them space these days.
Indeed, when the Lilywhites were trying to break down Sunderland at the Lane 10 days ago, it was Dembele who put them ahead in the second half, sending a low 20-yard strike into the bottom corner to register his fourth goal of the season.
Yet the head coach feels Dembele already has the freedom to pose a threat in the final third and says the priority is to maintain the balance between attack and defence.
“From the beginning of the season, we’ve shared a lot of time together,” Pochettino told Ham&High Sport. “The position is not important. Our philosophy is to respect our organisation out of possession – to press and try to recover the ball quickly – and in offensive situations our offensive players have freedom.
“It’s not important whether they start from the right, the left, the middle, as a No10 or No8. If you analyse the game you will see that sometimes Dembele is a striker, Christian Eriksen is a midfielder. We change a lot because that’s what we work towards - we work for change.
“We only need to give them a good organisation without the ball because this is the most important thing – to recover it sand have a very good discipline and organisation when the opponent has the ball.”
Asked whether Dembele’s ability to win the ball and launch counter-attacks makes him ideally suited to the defensive midfield role, Pochettino said: “Yes, but he is a player that can play in different positions.
“If we analyse his history, he started playing as a striker at Alkmaar in Holland and he has played in different positions with the national team, and here as well.
“The most important thing is the balance in between the players, and the offensive players and creative players need to be free, but always under a good organisation and the discipline.
“They have enough quality to create everything but the organisation we have shown from the beginning of the season is very important – to not concede goals and to play well in the opposite half.”
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs