Moussa Dembele defies analysis by being himself. This Alternative Match Report of the North London derby explores his importance to the Spurs’ playing style.
“Ohhhh Moussa Dembeleee’’ echoes across the rather large space that is Wembley Stadium, which would appear bemusing to those who aren’t watching the game or relying on highlights. Dembele hasn’t scored, hasn’t got an assist, and hasn’t strayed much further beyond the halfway line.
And yet…and yet the fan appreciation for Spurs midfielder is more than justified. They adore him. It’s the kind of performance that’s easy to look past. In a volatile North London derby, Dembele has done what he has been doing for most of the season – used sheer grace and poise to keep control of the ball, and allowed Spurs to play on calmly. For a big man who previously worked as midfield enforcer and goal-scorer at Fulham and in his early Spurs career, this reinvention is special. There were moments when he swivelled around Ozil with all the poise of a qualified dancer, moments where he lost the ball and very quickly retrieved it, before passing it on with an assurance that was needed in this relatively young Spurs side. These moments are part of the bigger picture, these moments create the Pochettino vision.
Arsenal’s great hope going into the game mainly lay with Aubameyang, the pacey striker who relies on service to get his goals. Yet the Arsenal service was derailed by Dembele. Mohamed Elneny struggled, and Mkhitaryan went AWOL, and as a result, both were taken off mid-way through the second half. There was no pathway. Aubameyang was stranded, cutting a lonely figure, almost like a Robinson Crusoe in the box. To his credit, Jack Wilshere was the only Arsenal player in that middle who seemed comfortable threading passes through, and you would think he, and the team, regretted the absence of Aaron Ramsey alongside him.
“For me he is a genius, an unbelievable player,’’ Pochettino said of the Belgian maestro after the game. The only flaw is his precarious injury record. There’s a fragility to his play, yet nothing can be done about that other than to marvel at his performances when he is fit and playing. For Spurs, their possession-based game needs Dembele to really prosper; he is the one who stretches the opposition with his constant retention and moving of the ball. His ability to control the ball in the middle of the park also allows the more attacking Spurs players to find space and get ready to launch. In physical games such as the derby, his composure on the ball allowed his team-mates to work on their positioning off the ball. He is essentially a safety option on the pitch that allows creativity to prosper in others.
Dembele’s physicality allows Spurs to press when they don’t have the ball and stops opposition players launching a counter-attack. For a man who seemingly does little of note in games, his value in the side cannot be under-estimated.
Of course, it wasn’t a one man show for Spurs; it never is. Kane was constantly pestering the Arsenal defence, Son played with high energy and purpose, Alli wasn’t at his best but had a few chances to increase the lead, Hugo Lloris was crucial towards the end of the game.
For Spurs, this was a comfortable victory not reflected in the scoreline. Petr Cech kept the ball out with all the determination of a legend whose credibility is now being questioned as he enters the twilight of his esteemed career. Lacazette scuffed chances with all the nervous gait of a big-money signing with the pressure of the world on his shoulders. The great rejuvenation we saw in their 5-1 demolition of Everton is in danger of being yet another false hope for Arsenal FC. But this report is about Dembele.
In many ways, Dembele is an anomaly to the modern game; his value can’t be quantified or judged by stats, yet there’s never really been a debate about his value to this Spurs side. In many ways it’s refreshing. He’s a player who defies analysis trends by simply being himself. At an age when football is played at the pace of interplanetary rockets, in him Spurs have a ballet dancer on the pitch.