Moussa Dembele's performance a one-off, or indicative of a problem?

Scott Heavey

If Moussa Dembele is giving the ball away, he's not doing much of anything. Are Spurs using him, and their other talent, in the most effective manner?

Moussa Dembele was Tottenham Hotspur's weakest player on Saturday. He's had a great season, and was a good signing, and will have lots of good performances in a Tottenham shirt, but he was very bad on Saturday. He hurt his team with his mistakes. It was hard to watch.

He was dispossessed on five occasions, which is very, very bad. He plays in a position on the pitch where, if he gives the ball away, the opposition is already in a very good position to attack Tottenham's goal. In their combined 90 minutes on the pitch, Sandro and Scott Parker were not dispossessed once as a duo. The only other players who played for Tottenham on Saturday that were dispossessed more than twice were strikers.

Dembele's primary role in Tottenham's team is probably to keep the ball moving, recycle possession -- if you prefer that term -- and prevent Tottenham from losing the ball. He is usually very good at not giving the ball away, even if he has a number of shortcomings as a central midfield player in Tottenham's setup, but he performed that role very poorly against Queens Park Rangers.

Some might argue that his primary role is actually, or should actually be, to create chances for Spurs by completing long and/or creative and/or risky passes that other players do not have the quality to complete. In this role, he was also a failure against QPR. That's probably partially due to the faults of others, but in any event, Dembele completed one long ball and no through balls (!!!) on Saturday.

Dembele also committed five fouls against QPR, when no other Tottenham player committed more than one. He was the only player on the Spurs side to pick up a booking. He had as many fouls as successful tackles, and he had six fewer interceptions than Parker.

Now that I've spent 300 words strongly criticizing Dembele's play on Saturday, I feel it necessary to point out that I actually think he's a pretty neat player, and I think he's done well for Tottenham Hotspur. He's done a good deal to start repaying his transfer fee, and Tottenham could sell him for more than they paid for him despite this very bad performance and the fact that he's not exactly a spectacular creator in the center of midfield. He has lots of uses and has put in plenty of good performances this year, but I'm starting to wonder whether or not he's being used correctly, and if Tottenham can sustain their fourth-place push with him in his current role.

I have, personally, always seen Dembele as a member of a three-man midfield, or as an advanced player that allows a team to keep a ball. He's not a Luka Modric replacement and wasn't seen as such by most fans, but he's been shoved into a "Modric replacement" role. He does some things better than Modric and some things worse, but he's playing as the more creative of two central midfielders in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation, and is asked to be the main creative central outlet for the team. He doesn't have Modric's range of passing, he doesn't appear to have the confidence in his playmaking skills that Modric has, and he probably feels that way for a good reason.

Tottenham's defensive spine, wing play and the finishing of Jermain Defoe are good enough to mask their deficiencies in most games. Spurs can (and will) win lots of games 1-0 and 2-1 when they have absolutely no creativity through the center of the park. But once in a while, teams will pack players behind the ball like QPR did on Saturday and Tottenham will have no answer.

And that game was a 0-0 draw, through some luck and great play by Hugo Lloris. QPR had some brilliant counter-attacks off Dembele errors, and a team with more quality (or just a body) up top would have scored one of them. A similar match against Reading or Sunderland might have resulted in a 1-0 loss for Tottenham Hotspur.

Tottenham don't necessarily need an elite deep-lying playmaker, but a two-man center of midfield that involves Dembele is loaded with deficiencies. If he gives the ball away cheaply to big central midfielders like Stephane Mbia, the advantages to playing him in that role are effectively wiped out.

As an attacking midfielder, Dembele has a lot to offer. As a deep central midfielder, he exists to not lose the ball and distribute to wide players. If he does not do those things effectively or Tottenham's opponent is not allowing him to perform the latter job, he's not a great fit for the side in his current role.

Spurs have a top-four squad, but Saturday's result suggests that they might struggle to hold off Arsenal if they're deployed in their current setup.

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