If one was to discuss who the greatest player to have graced White Hart Lane across the last decade, a bunch of overwhelming responses might point into the direction of a certain Welshman. Frighteningly quick down the wing and a viscous finisher, nobody can forget that famous night against Inter Milan. Displayed at a stadium, holding the interpretation as one of the wonders of the world in footballing context, The San Siro helped announce Gareth Bale as a star of European football.
The performance that night in Milan probably became the catalyst towards sole dependency riding on his shoulders across the next three years. In hindsight, no Lilywhite faithful was gobsmacked, rather just sorrowful when he broke the then (2013) transfer fee record, joining a juggernaut of superstars at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Providing stiff competition and rightly so, many might also name the player who was rejected by Arsenal. From sharing surplus roles while hindering on the Leicester City bench with the likes of Jamie Vardy, to becoming the England captain, Tottenham’s emphatic “He’s one of our own” chant only helps compliment the brilliance of Harry Kane.
Chasing Alan Shearer’s Premier League record for most goals (260), only helps exemplify the weight of optimism and desire of every Spurs’ fan, every time the Englishman is in front of goal. An integral figure behind changing the perception of the club across the last five years, his quest and constant thirst to land silverware is why many acknowledge his presence among Tottenham’s elite.
Surprising to many, especially to those who don’t exclusively initiate watching Spurs on a weekly basis, a different picture is painted when the question of the greatest player is put forward amongst the player’s themselves.
A box-to-box midfielder acknowledged for his ability to exfiltrate the ball through his immaculate dribbling skills, before letting attacking instincts dictate play to slice through the opposition, Mousa Dembélé is the name echoed amongst the players.
Showcasing the baffling disguise of generating pace and swiftness with the ball despite a physically heavy presence, it’s no surprise that he was called “monster with feet of a ballerina” by former teammates Eric Dier and Dele Alli.
The Belgian visually orchestrated the philosophy of attacking football choreographed and emphasized by former manager Mauricio Pochettino. Honoured with recognition as one of the most talented managers in Europe, it only made sense that the Argentinian proclaimed “Dembélé was the greatest player I managed”.
An unconventional central midfielder, whose attributes were neither purely based on defensive solidity nor attacking ability, his prowess lay somewhere in between. Illustrated through the nature of his trademark 90-yard journey, the never-ending stride depicted how Tottenham transitioned from defence to attack. The uniqueness that left everyone in awe was showcased through the fallen heap of defenders left behind as the Belgian glided through.
Reminiscing in the Belgian’s best performances dawning the white shirt, there is no bigger stage and no better memory than the North London Derby of February 2018. Far from the mundane side to side passing accustomed to playing safe by both teams that day, the Belgian’s unrelenting instinct to move the ball forward stood out.
His attempts to drive forward allowed him to dominate the likes of Jack Wilshere and Granit Xhaka, exposing their defensive fragility. Smothering his opponents all afternoon, it was no surprise that Wilshere was often witnessed tugging onto Dembélé’s shorts in last ditch efforts to stop the advancements.
Persistently getting the job done through aggressively winning the ball back, his intelligent display with what he did next was something that the likes of Moussa Sissoko and Tanguy Ndombele can learn from in today’s time.
Being the calm sea that kept Spurs’ boat afloat, his contribution in the goal helped cap off a sensationally display. Out muscling to get past Mesut Özil, it was his through ball across the wing which helped Ben Davies lay off an inviting cross majestically met by Kane.
A trademark strikers finish sent Wembley into jubilation, with the chant “He’s one of our own” emphatically lifting the roof, or in this case the arch off. Kane took the credit, but there was a section of crowd, including myself, that acknowledged the man who always made it happen but remained behind the scenes. That certain section sung “Ohh Mousa Dembélé” in the backdrop, improbably attempting to be heard.
His performance didn’t go unrecognised, and as Kane was awarded the Man of the Match by BT Sport officials, for one weekend Dembélé became a social media sensation on alarming proportions. His name published like a proclamation of a great unjust with both sets of rival fans joining hands to express their opinions on Twitter. They believed it should have been his name credited with the award.
That day, Mousa Dembélé was celebrated for a change. The man who often stayed away from the headlines, won paparazzi’s across both the red and white sections of London. Statistics only strengthened the case of those protesting on Twitter, with Dembélé’s passing accuracy of 96.6%, being the best either side.
With Spurs adopting the philosophy of playing out from the back, Dembélé performed his usual duty as the peripheral figure in the transition from defence to attack. Holding most ball possession in the process, it was astounding to witness that the Belgian’s first misplaced pass came in the 50th minute.
Yet, as staggering as it seems, this was just another feather in one of the many caps that Belgian quietly wore across his Tottenham journey. For instance, in the 2016 season, Sunderland’s Didier Ndong became the first player to dispossess Dembele, ending a run across six months. During that course, the Belgian had gone to complete a momentous 31 consecutive successful dribbles.
The title of being practically impossible to get the ball off richly went unnoticed among the fans, giving an essence of things being taken for granted. Instead it was when the players bestowed the title of the squad’s best player to Dembélé, heads started to turn.
A unique specimen in the world of football, his unorthodox approach is what has made him stand out. Holding the ability to tackle while dribbling or taking the ball while heavily surrounded by opposition players, he is a gift who just kept giving without an ounce of stardom craving recognition in return.
He made dribbling across the centre of the pitch his routine job, giving an illusion that it was the easiest job to do. A drop of the left shoulder and right past his opponent, Dembélé displayed one the hardest things in football effortlessly, with a touch of elegance.
The first real influence initiating Dembélé’s gameplay as the central midfielder who had the licence to interchange defence into attacks can be credited to Tottenham’s former manager, André Villas-Boas. Focused on driving towards a direct style of attacking football, Dembélé obtained a permanent central midfield role under the Portuguese.
His display in a 3-2 win over Manchester United that year, was one of the first memories I hold of noticing how calm and composed Dembélé was under immense pressure from the likes of United’s midfield. The result held significance for me and the entire Spurs fanbase because it ended Tottenham’s 23-year wait for a victory at Old Trafford. Dominant in the centre, Old Trafford was bulldozed over by a Belgian tank, something manager Sir Alex Ferguson and the Red Devil fans were not accustomed too.
The memory of witnessing Dembélé breaking from the halfway line, effortlessly dribbling past Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes before setting up Gareth Bale for the winner is a recurring dream, I keep reminiscing while being wide awake. Wide awake because that’s exactly the type of character the current Tottenham dressing room desperately needs as they try and grasp on the fringes of the final spot in the Europa League.
With a transfer to Guangzhou R&F in January 2019, Mousa Dembélé finished his Premier League career having won 81 per cent of his attempted tackles. He also went to China with the record of being the only Tottenham Hotspur player to have never made an error that resulted in a goal across his 250 appearances.
The £11 million transfer fee he commanded was largely influenced by niggling injuries that had kept the Belgian out of the squad. His low-key January exit helping suggest that his six-and-a-half-year marriage with a team reluctant in giving contracts to players past 30, had come to a tragic and rather quiet end.
Remembering his Spurs debut against Norwich City, it took Dembélé just 20 minutes to showcase a change in pace, freeing himself from the impound opposition midfielders before sending a scorching low drive past John Ruddy.
That day introduced signs of a player who could twist and turn his body out of various complicated situations and breeze past his opponents. His biggest asset lay in his movements with the ball at his feet, which ultimately became the catalyst behind why his body started failing him during the 2018 campaign.
Perhaps under-celebrated rather than underrated, Mousa Dembélé helped others around him become better players. By being nearby, he gave them the freedom to achieve their set out targets without having to do anyone else’s work, as he took that responsibility solely upon himself.
Popularly nicknamed “the doctor”, highlighted by the fact that he made everyone feel better when he was on the ball, there probably is no better way to define Mousa Dembélé . In an ode to celebrate and recognize his Tottenham career, his presence is today missed more than ever.
With the current crop depleted of his services nor replaced, finding someone who adequately replicates of all Dembélé ’s strengths and brings the presence of a backbone to the squad, will probably prove impossible. The unsung hero of White Hart Lane, the Belgian can be summarized as a man, whose importance was possibly fully recognised only after his departure.