Mauricio Pochettino admits Mousa Dembele’s game time is being carefully managed, in consultation with the Belgian, as Tottenham prepare to visit West Ham in Saturday’s London derby.
Dembele has a long-term foot problem which left him playing through the pain barrier at the end of last term. And, although he had an operation in May, he admitted during Spurs’ pre-season tour of the USA that he is unlikely to ever be entirely free of discomfort.
Tellingly, the 30-year-old is yet to start two games in the space of a week for the Lilywhites this campaign.
While he was in the line-up for the first three fixtures before the international break, they were all seven days apart – and since the midweek cup matches have begun, he has started alternate games.
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Dembele only played for the final 20 minutes at Everton on September 9 as Pochettino kept his midfielder fresh for the Wednesday night Champions League showdown with Borussia Dortmund.
He was then rested against Swansea last weekend – an unused substitute – before starting Tuesday’s League Cup tie against Barnsley at Wembley.
It now remains to be seen whether the pattern will continue – whether he will be named on the bench for a third successive Premier League game this weekend – and how he will then be used in the following two matches against Apoel Nicosia and Huddersfield over the next nine days.
“It’s so important to manage properly with him,” said Pochettino. “We have a very good communication between the doctor, physio, sports science and coaching staff to try to help him. To help him is to help the team. He is such an important player for us.
“To manage [him] properly is the key – to keep him fit and try to provide all the quality that he has to the team.
“I’ve told you many, many times that, for me, he’s one of the geniuses that I’ve met in football. Always it’s so important to hear him, to share the decisions. That relationship is so important to help him, and if he feels well he helps the team.”
Pressed further on the subject, Pochettino said: “I cannot say anything because that is a private matter and it is more the doctor who can explain better. In a private matter, that is a medical matter, it’s so difficult to speak.”
Then asked about Dembele’s form so far this term, Pochettino responded: “Like all the players, good and not so good – sometimes better in some games.
“In 10 months when you compete, it’s so difficult that the 24 players keep the same level because many things happen around the players or inside – they are human, they are not machines.
“You know very well [yourselves] that sometimes you are in a good mood, bad mood, you are sick, you eat something or you drink too much one night because you are at some party and then, the day after, you are weak! It’s because everyone is human, and the players are human.”
Given Dembele’s ongoing foot problem and Victor Wanyama’s absence due to a knee injury, Harry Winks’ return to full fitness is welcome for Pochettino, who can also call on Eric Dier – the man who scored a 90th-minute winner on his debut at West Ham in 2014.
Versatile Dier was often used as a third centre-back last season but the arrival of Davinson Sanchez has freed him up to play more regularly in central midfield – seemingly his preferred position.
The England man started Spurs’ first six games of the season before getting a rest during Tuesday’s League Cup tie. But, as Pochettino has pointed out, his importance and involvement is hardly new.
“I think the most important thing last season was he was the player in the squad that played the most,” he said. “To play in different positions adds more value to the player and that is why we’re so happy with him. All managers love to have this type of player in your squad.
“When we signed Toby Alderweireld from Atletico the club’s decision was either to sign another midfielder or give the possibility to Eric to fit into that position. We took a big risk not signing another midfielder and it was fantastic.
“We feel very proud about his last three seasons with us because he achieved many, many more things – more than he expected maybe.”
Manchester United were keen to sign Dier during the summer but Tottenham refused to entertain any bids and Pochettino had little to do with the matter.
“I don’t like to speak about rumours,” he said. “I cannot speak with the players [in the summer], I don’t have relationships with the agents, I’m a bit away from all that happens.
“The only thing [I get involved with] is the final decision when we sign or sell players. Daniel [Levy] comes in and says ‘we have that offer’ or ‘we can do this’, but always I am involved at the end of the negotiation.
“In the process, I am never aware, because I don’t need to know many things that happen, because I need to be focused on football. My job description is I am the manager, but in the end I am the coach who loves to work on the pitch.”
Pochettino invariably finds a role for Dier in his line-up, regardless of the system, and Heung-Min Son is pushing for a similar status after impressing in his latest outings.
The South Korean scored Spurs’ early opener against Dortmund last week and has since been one of the Lilywhites’ most dangerous players against Swansea and Barnsley, even if he has not found the net in those matches.
Son has often been the odd one out when Pochettino has opted for three centre-backs and only two attacking midfielders, but the manager welcomes any selection dilemmas.
“I celebrate when more than 11 players deserve to play,” he said. “Then it’s our decision how we [choose] the team, the rotation, or the system we use.
“Look at the performance of Michel Vorm. He kept us alive [against Barnsley] at the beginning of the second half, in the Carabao Cup.
“Maybe you can say ‘why not play Michel Vorm on Saturday because his performance was fantastic?’ but we have another, Hugo Lloris, that is top too. You are very relaxed when you have this type of player that you can trust, and more than 11.”
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