Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino says Mousa Dembele is a “genius” and believes he would be one of the best players in the world if he had coached the Belgian from a younger age.
Pochettino puts the midfielder in a group of five “geniuses” he has played with or coached in his career, the others being fellow Argentine Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, Jay-Jay Okocha and Ivan de la Pena.
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Dembele endured a disjointed start to his Spurs career after joining from Fulham in 2012 before his form sparked into life and the 29-year-old will be key again if Tottenham are to overcome a determined Burnley side in the Premier League on Saturday.
“Mousa Dembele is completely different to two-and-a-half years ago when we arrived here,” Pochettino said.
“He didn’t play too much in his first season, he always had problems, or physical problems. I must give all credit to these guys, the sports science and all the medical staff, to create now a Mousa Dembele that is strong and can play.
“I always say ‘Mousa, in my book you will be one of my genius players that I have been lucky to meet’. One was Maradona, the others Ronaldinho, Okocha and De la Pena – he was a genius too – and Mousa Dembele.
“We always told him that if we had taken him at 18 or 19 years old, he would have become one of the best players in the world. I would have loved to have taken him on at 18.”
Dembele’s composure in possession is aided by his strength and power, traits Tottenham will need in abundance if they are to inflict only Burnley’s fourth home defeat in the league this term. Spurs are made of sterner stuff these days under Pochettino, who often takes part in training and still cannot resist a tussle.
“I did it today again. Today I challenged with Cameron [Carter-Vickers] and my hand was [hurt],” Pochettino said with a smile. “You know I like to fight with them to show them I am stronger than them, mental and physical.
“Sometimes I lose the challenge because they are physically stronger, but I am more strong here [points to his head].”
Tottenham sit 10 points behind Chelsea and they must seal Champions League qualification by avoiding another end-of-season collapse like last season which saw them squander second place and fall below Arsenal on the final day.
Suspicions remain about the effects Pochettino’s high-octane style can have at the end of a campaign but he believes the problem has been in the heads of his players, not the legs.
“No, no, when we analyse last season it wasn’t a physical problem,” Pochettino said. “It was a mental problem that the team gave up in the last two or three games. It wasn’t physical. Now the challenge is to keep fighting until the end.
“We thought too much about the summer, the Euros, everything else, and we lost a little bit of focus. Now the focus is to keep fighting. The difference you can make is here in the head now. If you are not ready in your mind to compete, then it’s impossible.”