Mousa Dembele among five genius players I've met - Pochettino
LONDON -- Mauricio Pochettino has named Tottenham midfielder Mousa Dembele among a select group of five geniuses he has been lucky enough to work with in his career.
Pochettino ranked Dembele alongside his ex-roommate Diego Maradona, his former Paris Saint-Germain teammates Ronaldinho and Jay-Jay Okocha, and Ivan de la Pena, the midfielder he played with and managed at Espanyol. He also said Dembele would have become one of the best players in the world if he had been his manager as a teenager.
"I always say, 'Mousa, in my book, you will be one of my genius players that I have been lucky to meet,'" Pochettino said.
"One was Maradona, then Ronaldinho, Okocha and De La Pena. He is a genius too, Moussa Dembele. We always told him, 'If we had taken you at eighteen or nineteen years old, you would have become one of the best players in the world.' I would have loved to have taken him on at 18."
Dembele has become a crucial part of Pochettino's Tottenham team -- so much so that he joked in August that Spurs "do not exist" without the Belgian -- but he was a bit-part player during the manager's first season at the club, starting just 10 league games.
Pochettino credited Spurs' conditioning and medical team, led by assistant manager Jesus Perez, for turning Dembele around but said the 29-year-old, who still suffers from a persistent foot problem, has worked hard to improve his fitness.
"Mousa Dembele is completely different to two-and-a-half years ago when we arrived here. 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," Pochettino said, pointing to Perez. "Sports science and all the medical staff to create a Mousa Dembele now that is strong and can play. I think that every week if you are honest, you would agree with me.
"He has started to work very hard. We provide individual plans to every player. I think we are very happy."
Dembele personifies Tottenham's transformation under Pochettino from a talented team widely considered to be a soft touch to the hardest team to beat in the Premier League.
The Belgian is often credited for his immense strength but every one of Pochettino's players must be strong and fit in order to play the high-intensity pressing football he demands.
His team's aggression will again be essential for Saturday's Premier League match at Burnley, who have won nine of their 14 home matches at Turf Moor.
"Burnley are a very aggressive team. They are a very strong team and very well organised. They play very well on the counter-attack and with long balls. And if you are not ready to fight in every challenge and every action, then you will find it tough. So we need to be ready to fight because they are in a very tough situation," Pochettino said.
"You can play all the nice football and tiki-taka, but in the Premier League sometimes you must fight to win. When you play Burnley you must play well with the ball, but when you don't have it you must be ready to fight.
"I have tried to convince them that football is not only when you have the ball," he explained. "When you don't have the football, it is football too. To fight, to press, to challenge with your opponent. Not wait and be passive. We need to be aggressive and proactive and to try to challenge the opponent. That is how we are on the training sessions, every single exercise or drill is about playing football but fighting too, when you don't have the ball.
"I like to fight with them [in training] to show them I am more stronger than them, mental and physical. Sometimes physical I lose the challenge because they are physically stronger, but I am more strong here," he said, pointing to his head.
Pochettino also insisted, not for the first time, that Spurs' collapse at the end of last season was not a result of physical overexertion. His team took two points from their final four matches, culminating in a humiliating 5-1 defeat at relegated Newcastle United on the final day, but Pochettino insisted the problem was in his players' minds.
"When we analyse last season it wasn't a physical problem. It was a mental problem that the team gave up in the last two or three games. It wasn't physical. 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," he said, pointing to his head again. "If you are not ready in your mind to compete, then it's impossible."
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.