A match-fit Dembele can be magnificent but his stuttering form has Nathan from Tottenham Talking Tactics putting forward a case for another 'one of our own' taking his place.
Our undefeated run came to an end on Saturday. That run and the emphatic victory over, then title-favourites, Man City somewhat disguised our slow start to the season.
Every area of the team, except Hugo Lloris, has come under focus. Harry Kane not firing, then injured and Vincent Janssen not up to par. Defence still strong but Toby Alderweireld passing missed up front. New signing Victor Wanyama stepping up where Eric Dier is flagging.
Attacking midfield has taken the most flak. Fan favourite Dele disappearing from games, Son bright only in bursts, Erik Lamela will always enrage a certain portion of the lilywhite faithful and what the hell is Moussa Sissoko for?
Christian Eriksen has been the real whipping boy though, his creative best goes largely unnoticed and his errors are painfully clear for all to see.
But I think our biggest issue this season is in the least discussed area of the pitch. Mousa Dembele was missed through suspension and for a while there was a sense of waiting for his return. But his return didn’t yield results or performances so the questioning magnifying glass went elsewhere.
My angle is that we’re still awaiting Dembele’s return because he’s not really back yet. He’s still not fit, not sprinting, not keeping the ball against all odds (5 giveaways v Chelsea), not consistently ghosting by players or holding them off with his strength while on the turn. He’s taking it easy and still tiring quickly.
Here are the three main things last season’s Mousa Dembele gave us:
1. Bringing the ball out from the back.
Dembele, like no other player can resist opposition pressing. He can take the ball from a defender with a 5 yard pass, draw the opposition’s press towards him, then walk through it, bringing the ball up the centre of the pitch. Without him we are forced to build our play through our full-backs or with attacking players dropping deep. With attacks starting wide or deep it’s easier for the opposition to compress that side of the pitch. We’re easier to contain, more likely to receive the ball with our backs to goal and more likely to end our attack with a cross from a full-back.
2. Holding on to the ball in midfield.
Once the ball is in midfield Spurs like to slowly increase the pressure on the opposition by moving the ball about the attacking third smartly. We draw the opposition out of shape and move it to where they leave a gap. Dembele is key to this because in this phase of the play he acts not so much like a footballer but a safety deposit box where Spurs can store the ball when the opposition force them backwards or sideways. With the ball locked in midfield we can re-position ourselves offensively and defensively before restarting the play.
3. Winning the ball.
Dembele’s known for his dribbling but his defensive stats are similarly amazing. When match-fit his mobility, power and intelligence is so important to our ability to win the ball back quickly. Not only is he a great tackler, fantastic in aiding the press before him by stepping up to the open man but with him in the team we’re able to go straight to our midfield phase once we’ve won it because of his his function in item 2. Because of our ability to press the ball all over the pitch we can combine dominating the possession with taking risks on the ball. The best of both worlds.
Without a match-fit Dembele we don’t have full control of the midfield and without that we can’t inflict our game on the opposition. We may still have plenty of the ball but it’s in deeper or wider areas. We may still win it back, but it’s not as immediate. We may still take risks in possession but not as often, not as creatively, not with a feeling of freedom.
Pochettino has explored various means of coping without Dembele but all have short-comings. While he was still out suspended we played direct and wide with natural wingers and two forwards. We managed to grind out some tight results but the football was dull.
Next we moved to the 4-1-4-1. The full-backs stay deep and move narrow in the 4-1-4-1 to act like centre-midfielders. Wanyama shone in this shape, especially against Man City when we were able to play on the counter. But against teams who sat deep, players like Lamela and Sissoko were unable to make things happen from out on the touchline.
We played a three-at-the-back against Arsenal. With three central defenders and Wanyama behind him, Dembele was able to decrease his tasks so as to perform better in them. I assume this shape was deemed too defensive against most teams.
Recently we’ve played a 4-4-2 Diamond or 4-1-2-1-2 shape. This has seen Harry Winks join the starting XI in central midfield where he’s shared Dembele’s role. But the central-midfielders were too high to bring the ball out for the 30 minutes we played this shape v West Ham and we were doubled up on out wide v Monaco.
We’re 14 games into the season without a solution to our central midfield problem – comfortably 5th and out of the Champion’s League. It is my belief that Dembele’s form throughout the 4+ years he’s been with us can be put down almost entirely to his ability to find match-fitness despite a chronic hip injury.
With our entire style of play so dependent on the Ledley King of midfielders we need to look elsewhere and that’s why I think it’s time for Harry Winks to take Dembele’s central-midfield role in the 4-2-3-1.
He can’t walk the ball through the middle of the pitch but what he lacks in dribbling he makes up for in vision and passing. He can’t hold on to the ball against all odds in midfield but he can position himself intelligently so as to provide a safe option. He doesn’t have the energy or physical presence of Dembele but he can press intelligently.
It’s a difficult place to be, reliant on a 20 year old to kick-start our season, and he must be forgiven if he can’t handle the most difficult role in the team – a role that demands consistent physical and technical excellency. But there appears no better option.