“Lads it’s Tottenham.”
Alex Ferguson’s now infamous three word team talk, revealed by Roy Keane last year, defines how Spurs were viewed for many years.
The North London club were associated with entertaining, attacking football, but were seen as a side with a soft underbelly.
In the eloquent words of Roy Keane – “We all know what Tottenham is about, they are nice and tidy but we’ll f***ing do them.”
For many years, Spurs were all silk and no steel.
The same could have been said of Mousa Dembélé in his first season in England.
When the Belgian first came to attention in England, it was as a luxurious number 10 at Fulham under Mark Hughes and later Martin Jol.
Hughes once revealed that Dembélé’s teammates at Fulham referred to him as the ‘doctor,’ because if you “gave him the ball he made everything better”.
Dembélé possessed technical prowess, pace and an eye for a pass, but was often criticized for a lack of end product at Craven Cottage. Indeed, he never managed more than three goals a season at the club despite his advanced position.
Jol described the 29 year old as “probably the best player on the ball I’ve ever seen,” but like many of his Fulham teammates, Dembéle appeared to struggle to take games by the scruff of the neck, despite his size and power.
In his last season at the club, however, Jol moved Dembélé into a deeper position in central midfield, and the former AZ Alkmaar midfielder – who has 62 caps for his country – shone in his new role.
His quick feet and natural physical strength made him hugely effective in the middle of the park, and his work rate improved dramatically.
He moved across London to White Hart Lane in 2012 for a fee in the region of £15 million, and has been an increasingly important cog in the Spurs machine in the five years since his arrival.
“In my opinion Dembélé (is the best player at Tottenham) – I think he’s very good. His feet are unbelievable. He’s so big and he shifts his body so easily,” Dele Alli remarked in 2016.
Dembéle’s game has reached another level over the past two seasons under the tutelage of Mauricio Pochettino, who has labelled his holding midfielder as “a genius”.
His evolution mirrors that of Tottenham; from soft to steely, from shaky to solid. He exhibits all of the attributes which have ensured back to back title tilts for Spurs – power, pace, strength and skill.
Spurs have shed their soft underbelly, and the undoubtedly talented Pochettino has created a team which is extremely difficult to beat.
His side statistically possess the best defence in the Premier League over the past 24 months, and proved many doubters wrong again this year after collapsing towards the end of last season and relinquishing second place to their fierce North London rivals Arsenal.
Dembélé is symbolic of this new, at times ugly Spurs side. He relishes a physical battle, and often commits clever, often cynical fouls to halt the opposition on the counter. He is ugly without the ball, and stylish on it.
His controlled aggression, along with that of his midfield partner Victor Wanyama, is paramount to Spurs’ solid defence, and it is often Dembélé who sets in motion that rapid transition from defence to attack.
His ability on the ball elevates him above many holding midfielders in the league, and his ability to press and retain possession in tight areas is crucial to how Pochettino wants to play.
His presence alongside Wanyama has allowed Dele Alli to flourish further up the pitch, and Spurs have looked far less imposing in his absence.
He plays on the edge, and sometimes crosses the line. He lost his discipline in last season’s dramatic 2-2 draw with Chelsea, which ended Spurs’ slim hopes of catching title winners Leicester at the top of the table.
In one of the dirtiest clashes in Premier League history, Dembélé was involved in a disgusting altercation with Diego Costa, in which the Belgian appeared to attempt to eye gouge the controversial striker. The act led to a six game suspension for Dembélé, but marks one of the few times the aggressive midfielder has lost control.
Spurs were hugely disappointing in Europe this season, but showed strong resilience and good fortitude to end the season extremely strongly after Chelsea sealed the Premier League with three games to spare.
They deserve credit for improving on last season’s third place finish in a season in which they were outspent by most of their top four rivals.
The North Londoners need to improve in Europe, and a trophy should be a top priority next season, but the evolution of the club in recent years has mimicked that of their most important midfielder.
David is the editor of The Season Ticket.
He is a qualified journalist, and a long-suffering Meath and Liverpool supporter.