Graphics like the one above used to be used to illustrate Mousa Dembele’s deficiencies - and, actually, they were pretty good at that. The perennial issue with the Belgian was his ponderous style of play and his inability to truly effect the game around him.
Actually, that’s not true: he did affect the game around him - he slowed it down. His first pass was always sideways, his preferred option was always the safest. When he was in possession, he inadvertently allowed the opposition to reorganise - he was like a formational speed-bump.
On Saturday, he perhaps wasn’t at his most vertical and, as the graphic shows, a lot of his passing was quite to side-to-side. But that’s a false indicator: there will always be a place for that kind of distribution, because every ambitious side needs a player who changes the focus of attacks and who is willing to simply recycle the ball.
That might not be the best game to use an example, because he retreated into a holding role once Eric Dier had been substituted for Nacer Chadli, but it was still a performance which showed the evolution of his habits.
The pertinent improvement in Dembele is the speed at which he does things, not what he actually he does - even though there has been an improvement in that area too. He seems to process the game a lot quicker and has lost that habit of needlessly engaging defenders in slow-paced one-on-one battles. It’s a sequence which every Tottenham fan will know well: Dembele would square-up a marker, step away from him, then shovel the ball wide to a full-back.
It was infuriating; for a player as talented as him to play in such a reductive way constituted a gross misuse of ability.
He still beats players and will always have the ability to do that in the elegant way that he does, but he now he appears to create space for himself with the aim of actually doing something with it. It might need be a pass between the lines or up the pitch, but there’s usually a discernible logic to his
How that’s happened, who knows? It might be the effect of a coaching intervention or it might be an adjustment which comes from a greater tactical appreciation for what the team’s overall aims are.