The smile on Mousa Dembélé’s face said it all. He brought the ball under control with his right foot, teased the defender to shut him down, as he so often does, and then shifted like lightning onto his left before slamming the ball low and hard into the corner. Then came the smile. Dembélé is finally loving his work.
So much has changed since the beginning of summer and Dembélé, above all else, typifies that. Many would have happily let him leave before the close of the window - I wrote myself that this season would be the Belgian’s final opportunity to make a lasting impact at Tottenham, his last chance to prove his time here to be more than a disappointing case of unfulfilled potential.
It seems that Dembélé has finally decided himself that he cannot let a career with such talent and promise go to waste, as he has become an integral part of Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
The aspects missing from his game were hardly a mystery. Anyone that had watched him in the past could tell you what Dembélé needed to add - the desire to take a risk, drive forward once space is created, thread a final pass or take a shot with his jackhammer of a left foot.
We pointed out all these ‘simple’ solutions, but with a high degree of doubt that the man himself would ever find this enlightenment. Yet, in remarkable fashion, Dembélé has answered all these critiques emphatically, seemingly taking on each piece of advice and putting great effort into improving on the areas that were so sorely lacking.
The hesitancy and cautiousness that once permeated the 28 year-old’s mind has been cast aside in the wake of a new, determined attitude. Dembélé plays with the same sumptuous, languid swagger that he always did, floating past those brave enough to tackle him with an almost grandiose and condescending manner. Now though, after taunting an opposing player, he has a new-found desire to capitalise on his own brilliance and make something worthwhile from it.
This new appetite was perhaps summed up in a move Spurs eventually failed to take advantage of against Sunderland on Saturday. On the edge of the Tottenham area, Dembélé bullied Jeremain Lens off the ball, and where he may before have held the ball and retained possession in his own half, he bounded forward with powerful strides, assessed his options and thread a pass through for Érik Lamela without stopping to think.
This is a new beast to the one Premier League defences have faced before. His strength alone could be terrifying; there’s times when you would normally think it impossible for a man to retain his balance, let alone the ball and yet, as a Spurs fan, you never feel the Belgian will lose the ball under pressure. Couple this with his unique, luxurious dribbling and you potentially have one of the most complete players in the league.
With the changes Dembélé has made this season, he has moulded his supreme talent into a dangerous weapon, one that will far more often challenge opposition defences and goalkeepers. He now brings the same security in midfield he always did, but with the added dimension of a very serious forward threat.
The single drawback to Dembélé’s season has been the multiple injuries he's suffered. Since signing in August 2012, he has suffered from a recurrent hip problem, which has been a detriment to his past form but also impacted his ability to maintain fitness, picking up smaller injuries as a result - similar to the sad situation of Ledley King. The worry has been whether the injuries would ruin Dembélé’s vein of form. There has always been that nagging feeling in the back of most Spurs fans’ minds when the Belgian is restricted to the sidelines - what if upon his return, he would revert back to his old, ineffectual self. Time after time though, thankfully, mercifully, Dembélé has crushed these doubts.
The turnaround in form of the Antwerp-born midfielder has consequently resulted in a new sense of responsibility on Dembélé’s broad shoulders. At 28, he is one of the more senior figures in the league’s youngest side; in fact, Hugo Lloris is the only regular starter older than the Belgian.
This growing importance is perhaps best exhibited by the swayed opinions of the fans - against Leicester last Wednesday, White Hart Lane sung the name of the man they believed could turn the game. Of course, it didn’t work out, but the belief in Dembélé to be able to make such an impact is a stark contrast to previous seasons.
It’s a responsibility that he seems to now thrive upon. Whereas before he would silently drift through games, now he dominates them, dictating either from deep or further forward. Against Liverpool, he was a destructive force in breaking up the play and nipping attacks in the bud. In the 4-1 win over West Ham, in a game full of impressive displays, Dembélé stood head and shoulders above the rest with his delightful monopoly over the pace of the match.
His ability to thrive under pressure and expectation was tested when brought on late at home to Anderlecht with the score at 1-1. We all know what happened. To even take on the shot that he did was ambitious for any player, let alone one previously so averse to letting fly. The new pressure has naturally coincided with Dembélé’s growing influence and although it may be alien to him, it seems he is finding a taste for it, even enjoying it.
And that seems to be the key. As is well documented, Dembélé openly admits to not watching much football and perhaps it was a lack of passion and enjoyment for the game that held him back. Under Pochettino in the summer though, the Belgian has discovered an enthusiasm previously unseen. Playing with a smile on his face, Dembélé has found a role and a responsibility. And Tottenham are reaping the rewards.
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