The now 39-year-old, well respected in the game and handsomely decorated after a trophy-laden spell at Liverpool in the early-2000s, was a team-mate of Mousa’s at Fulham up until the Belgian international made the move to White Hart Lane in 2012.
That makes Danny, who played 29 times for us between 2006-07, the ideal man to assess the talents of our popular midfielder and, after Mousa’s Man of the Match performance in the North London derby on Sunday, we’re able to bring you the fascinating full, extended interview with Danny on Mousa’s development as a player…
Impressions of Mousa’s time at Spurs
Danny Murphy: “It’s always easier to judge someone and to comment on them when you’ve trained and played with them because you know every side of their game. He’s played in the last 18 months how I expected him to play when he first went to Spurs really. He’s done remarkably well in many ways because he was never a midfielder growing up, he was a wide man playing in a 4-3-3 system in Holland. When he came to us at Fulham when Mark Hughes signed him, he started as a number 10 and he had some fantastic games in that role in terms of his ability to beat people and his touch but he didn’t threaten the goal enough. When Martin Jol came in, who obviously knew a bit about him being from Holland, he decided to move him back into midfield, sometimes in a two with me but more often than not in a three.
"He’s now showing every aspect of his game and one of the best parts of that is his ability to get you from deep in your own half into the attacking half with those runs he does where he bursts past players. Under Andre Villas-Boas he seemed to be a lot more conservative in the way he played so I think Mauricio Pochettino has been brilliant for him in the fact that he’s given him the freedom to express himself. If he mixes that part of his game with his supreme power and strength in terms of his defensive ability, you’ve then got a complete central midfielder.”
‘A nightmare to play against’
“He complements the other lads in the side really well, he’s playing with confidence and he looks fit. He’s a nightmare for players to play against and I’ve spoken to a lot of players who really, really don’t like playing against him because if you press him and get after him, he skips by you and you can’t get after him to win the ball back. You can’t get in his face very easily because he’s so strong and good with the ball that he can just burst past you, so you have to be very careful when you play against him. You have to sit off him a little bit and let him have the ball in less dangerous areas. The more you try to get after him, the easier it is for him.
"I think he deserves great credit for adapting his game and becoming not just one of Tottenham’s best midfielders, but one of the best midfielders in the Premier League. I thought last season he was absolutely outstanding and the stats for when he played and when he didn’t for Tottenham are just incredible. The difference in the results when he didn’t play was certainly not a coincidence in my view. It’s a different side for me when he plays, it’s just a case of who plays with him when everyone’s fit – is it Dier and Dele Alli, or Wanyama and Dele Alli, or even the three powerful lads and play Dele Alli maybe wider sometimes in a game against better opposition? For me, he’s the first midfielder on the teamsheet for Spurs – he has to be, he’s been absolutely superb and it’s down to the fact that he’s developed in that role and learned the position, which isn’t easy to do when you haven’t played in it as a youngster.”
A reliable left foot
“He’s not two-footed – some players are blessed with the ability to go both ways and some aren’t. That’s just the way it is. Mousa has got a calmness on the ball that’s very rare. He waits for players to make moves before he moves himself which is a really unusual thing for a midfielder. When you train with him, you learn quickly not to do anything. When I trained against him I used to just let him have the ball and never tried to win it off him. I’d rather he just passed sideways or I’d just try to keep him predictable because as soon as you get close to him and try to have a nibble, he does you! You’ve got to respect him when you play against him. The fact that he’s not particularly strong with his right foot doesn’t hinder him so much because he’ll still burst past you, even if he goes that way with his left foot.
"I remember we used to sit and watch the post-match clips after the games at Fulham and he was always trying to improve his game and his end product, as in how can he play forward more, how can he be more instrumental in terms of making things happen and trying to get his team on the front foot? I don’t just mean running with the ball, I mean passing it forward as well because early on when he played in midfield he was very predictable. He just wanted to keep the ball, he was a bit sideways and backwards but I think he’s added that penetration to his game with his passing, not just his running ability with the ball. He seems to be looking to play forward that little bit more and his decision-making on when to do that has been much, much better in the last year or two that I’ve watched him play – he’s really got more confident in that area of his game. He’s not going to open you up like a Scholes, a Carrick or a Gerrard can but those 20-yard passes in to Eriksen, Alli or Lamela coming in off the line – he’s got much, much better at that. He was always looking at what he could do more of and how he could improve his game. When they did the stats last year at the end of the season on the midfielders and challenges won, interceptions, pass completion, dribbles – that type of thing – he was so high in all of them. The only aspect of his game where you wouldn’t put him up there with the rest was in the final third.”
‘He’s in my best XI of players I’ve played with’
“He’s a great lad, a super pro, he’s a really nice guy and he deserves the plaudits he’s getting because he really has worked on his game and it’s always good to see someone who works hard at it. I suppose some people sometimes ask if he could do a bit more and ask if he’s at his best for the 90 minutes but I think the way he plays tires him out. He excels on the pitch but where he’s doing so much dynamic running, you have to have spells in a game where you have a breather and I think sometimes that’s what he’s doing. Because he plays with such power and athleticism there are times in a game where he has to just play to breathe again. That’s one area I think people unfairly criticise him in – he’s probably having a breather from the four amazing runs he’s just done to get you up the pitch or the three where he’s just run back 40 yards as he did at Bournemouth. He chased Gradel back about 40 yards in that game and got there. I’m pleased that Tottenham fans appreciate him and the best compliment I can give him is that for a TV show about a year ago, I did a best XI of the players I’ve ever played with and he was in the midfield with Stevie G.”
Danny Murphy was speaking to us as part of our regular matchday programme feature called ‘Centre of Attention’ in which we shine the spotlight on our current first team stars with the aid of ex-players, up-and-coming academy starlets, journalists and more. If you missed last week’s edition at the Bayer Leverkusen match, be sure to buy the digital version now for even more on Mousa Dembele from others inside and outside the club and look out for the next instalment focusing on a different player in the next issue at the West Ham United game on November 19.