There’s no more heartrending sight than a wounded moose. A glorious animal, the monarch of the forest, reduced to the level of his once inferior competitors.
Although I’ve never seen an actual moose, I have witnessed Mousa Dembélé slip down the Premier League food chain. In recent years we have grown accustomed to our moose, nicknamed so due to his physical prowess, marching around the park domineering us to victory. But last weekend he was far from the alpha as City’s pack capitalized on a Spurs side that looked easy prey.
This is not a cheap dig at a player after a loss to one of the most ruthless sides of the Premier League era; in fact, it’s the contrary. Dembélé has been the wellspring of so much of what has gone right for Spurs in recent campaigns. This year we’ve been quick to point the finger after our domestic woes, but maybe the absence of a fully fit Dembélé has been understated.
It was not until the 2015/16 season that Mousa finally began to produce the type of dominant performances in Lillywhite that we all knew he blatantly possessed. When Dembélé pushed back to a deeper role Spurs did not lose a single game, resulting in an upward surge in the league standings. Fast forward past a stray finger in Diego Costa’s eye and he continued to be a pivotal force in another prosperous campaign.
The enigmatic midfielder is captivating to watch, ghosting his way through congested areas, swatting off anyone who dares challenge him. And his presence is felt all over the pitch; from relentlessly protecting those behind him, to enticing opponents out of position and releasing one of our attacking quartet.
It is the latter who usually take the plaudits, but anyone within the club recognizes his worth. None more so than the manager who once, rather worryingly, joked: “without Dembélé, we do not exist.”
Earlier in the season Pochettino continued to serenade the Belgian :
"“I always tell him: Mousa, ‘when I write my book, you will be one of my genius players, who I have been lucky to meet’. One was Maradona. The others were Ronaldinho, Okocha, and De la Pena.”"
His peers have also been quick to show their admiration. Speaking to the club’s website about his fellow countryman Jan Vertonghen said:
"“I don’t think people know how good Mousa is. You can ask every single player in the team and I don’t think you can describe how good Mousa is. You can only know if you play with him or against him, see him train for a couple of weeks, then you’ll find out.”"
However, out of the eight league games the Belgian has started this season Tottenham have won only twice, with four of those fixtures ending in defeat. This is a vast contrast to the last two campaigns when Dembélé’s name on the team sheet meant an almost guaranteed three points.
I knew the situation had become far too serious to ignore last weekend when I found myself yearning for the introduction of our other Moussa. Moussa Sissoko may not be anywhere near as endearing a player but his pace would have provided us with the odd burst forward, and if anything, he would have made life a little bit more awkward for City.
Rather surprisingly, Dembélé is still only 30. At times he can look much more than his years, largely down to a history of recurring injuries. Toward the end of last season the pain in his left foot became too much to bear and forced him under the knife. Afterwards the Belgian admitted he may never be 100% again, and maybe it’s time we started to take these comments seriously.
Dembélé still has a part to play. He looked dominant in a compulsory demolition of Stoke and the imminent return of Victor Wanyama will ease his workload.
But with teams around us progressing at an alarming rate and Mousa heading in the opposite direction it is hard to see him being the man that will carry Spurs to glory in the new stadium. It’s a difficult one to take as we cannot simply just go out and buy another Dembélé (excluding Celtic’s namesake striker) as there is no one quite as complete a midfielder as the Belgian.
However, this season we have proved that we do exist without Mousa. He only started once in arguably six of our best performances (Everton, Liverpool, Madrid x 2, Dortmud x 2). In each of these fixtures we were the team with less possession showing that we can adapt our play from pirouettes around the centre circle and still come out on top.
So life must and will go on without a fully fit moose. It has been a pleasure to watch him over the last few years, but I’m afraid the next time we read about the genius of Dembélé it may not be on the back page headlines, but in Pochettino’s book.