Moussa Dembélé is failing to fulfil his full potential with Tottenham Hotspur

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Mousa Dembélé’s removal at halftime from the thrilling 2-2 draw between Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United on Sunday was not surprising. His first half performance bordered on dismal. He failed to contribute meaningfully to attack and regularly conceded possession, most notably in the build up to Cheikhou Kouyaté’s opening goal. To be fair, he wasn’t the only Tottenham player to turn in a questionable game, but his inability to influence proceedings in his nominal No. 10 role felt particularly damning. The role, it seemed, was his to lose in the past several weeks. He thrived there in the win over Arsenal at White Hart Lane, and even contributed a goal in the loss against Liverpool later that same week. However, his performance on Sunday should cast some doubt over his continued place in the first team.

At Fulham, Dembélé played in a deeper attacking role, usually slotted alongside a defensive midfielder and tasked with driving the ball from deep with his considerable dribbling ability. Indeed, he was brought to Spurs in the summer of 2012 to play more or less the same role. He wasn’t a passer of the same quality as Luka Modrić, whom he replaced, but his direct, pacey play was to make him an engine in André Villas-Boas’ energetic midfield. He performed the role reasonably well but failed to contribute much in the way of concrete numbers. To date he’s only scored three goals for Spurs in 74 appearances, and his assist rate is not dramatically better. Watching him play is to witness his obvious ability. His aforementioned dribbling makes him a genuine threat with space in front of him, but often he defers to the players around him in crucial situations. At least twice Sunday, and several other times in the games prior to that, he danced around the ball, preferring to play the dummy for another Spurs player even when he might have had the better chance himself. It’s selflessness to a fault, and it is the kind of play that cost him a place in the starting XI at the beginning of this season.

All of which makes his recent transition to the No. 10 role perplexing. For all his talent, he obviously lacks the skills needed for the position. He doesn’t have Christian Eriksen’s vision or penchant for goals or even Paulinho’s hold up play. Instead, he’s a dribbler with even less space to operate than he had in his ideal role deeper in midfield, and this doesn’t help with his chronic inability to take chances. What virtue he does have lies in his knack for pulling opposing players out of position, but that talent can be hard to appreciate when Tottenham’s other midfielders fail to take advantage.

All of the aforementioned points bring us to the heart of the matter. Dembélé’s sudden promotion from the bench to the most important creative midfield role is less of a testament to his talents and more a result of loss of form elsewhere on the pitch. Eriksen’s having a breakout year, and is the closest Spurs have to a true No. 10, but he works best with the space afforded to him by playing slightly wide left. The space behind the striker therefore is usually fairly fluid, with Eriksen and other attacking midfielders like Erik Lamela drifting in from out wide. It’s a technique that has worked well this season, but it can mean that Spurs’ offense is very narrow. Often the space just on the edge of the opposition’s 18-yard box is clogged with midfielders vying for a chance on the ball. It puts undue pressure on the fullbacks to provide all the width and obliges the deeper midfielders to press forward. The space left behind these players can be easily exploited when possession is lost and the opposition counterattacks. Perhaps more importantly, it is a scheme that is overly reliant on the wide attacking midfielders being in form. Early in the season when Nacer Chadli was on fire and Lamela seemed to be building up steam, it could work wonders. When those same players succumbed to injuries or a dip in form, the cracks in the system began to appear.

Dembélé’s inclusion in the side could be an attempt to address this issue. His fairly disciplined central placement has meant that Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb can sit deeper, framing the attack and retrieving balls cleared out of defense. He also occupies defenders when Lamela, Eriksen or Andros Townsend inevitably cut in from outside. On paper it’s a sound tactic, and indeed it has worked more often than it hasn’t in recent weeks. Its flaws are easily exploited, however. West Ham’s Alex Song and Mark Noble pushed Dembélé back, forcing him deeper into midfield and denying him space to utilize his dribbling talents. The first goal came from him being pushed back into his own 18-yard box and losing possession to West Ham’s high press. From that deep it’s difficult for his talents to come to the fore, and Lamela and Townsend struggled to produce in his absence.

His failings Sunday should mean that Dembélé will not feature in the starting XI for the Capital One Cup final against Chelsea this coming weekend, though he will likely play against Fiorentina midweek in the Europa League. It’s difficult to argue for his regular inclusion in the side. To say that he’s enigmatic doesn’t seem to do him justice. He’s an attacking player who doesn’t score or set up goals. His talents are obvious but it is too difficult to figure where exactly they are best utilized on the pitch. Another Spurs player, Aaron Lennon, is the best analogue. His pace and agility on the right wing should make him a threat but there is no end product to speak of. Ultimately, Lennon was loaned out to Everton in January with the option to buy, and it’s easy to imagine Dembélé not being far behind. Soccer increasingly does not have a place for one dimensional players; it’s simply natural selection. Modern midfielders are so talented in so many different ways that players of niche ability like Dembélé become superfluous and, eventually, are weeded out of the game altogether.

 

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One Response

  1. John in VA February 25, 2015

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