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Moving on from Modric

With Modric gone and Parker injured, Spurs have had to employ a new-look central midfield this season. We take a statistical look at just how our double pivot is shaping up.

Mike Hewitt - Getty Images

After Modric went to Madrid and Spurs failed to close the deal for Joao Moutinho this summer, many wondered how the team would fare without replacing the Croatian magician's passing in the center of the pitch. But we're unbeaten since opening day and four consecutive league victories means Spurs are off to their best league start since we last qualified for the Champions League.

So obviously something must be going right (and we all know it's not AVB), but what the hell could it be? We've had a rash of injuries sidelining some of our key players, constant goalkeeping drama, and a manager hell-bent on our own destruction.

Even though we didn't land the Portuguese pass-master, we managed to snare an able replacement from just across London in Mousa Dembele. His partnership with Sandro at the heart of midfield this season has been one of the keys to Spurs' impressive start to the season.

It's early days yet, so we don't have a great sample size, but even after only four games in a Spurs shirt we can draw a few conclusions about the more handsome half of our Belgian contingent (oh snap, what now Team SexJan?)

Pass Accuracy Passes per Game Dribbles per Game Dispossessed per Game Long Balls per Game Key Pass per Game
Dembele 88% 50.4 2.2 0.8 4.8 1.6
Modric 87% 70.4 1.75 2.4 7.6 2.7

The table above shows some of Dembele's possession and passing statistics from this year as compared to Modric's performance last season. Mousa Dembele obviously has an uphill task in front of him to replace arguably the finest central midfield in the Premier League, but so far he's doing a pretty great job.

Dembele boasts a slightly better passing average than Modric, though he doesn't make as many passes per game as the Croatian. But he shows far superior close control with the ball at his feet and trumps Modric in successful dribbles per match, while turning the ball over a third as frequently.

Where Dembele needs to improve is his passing impact in the final third of the pitch. Modric moved the ball upfield with long balls and created scoring opportunities almost twice as frequently as Dembele has managed so far. (Thought it must be said, Dembele has already contributed as many assists from open play (2) as Modric managed all of last year.)

Hopefully Dembele's ability to play more incisive passes into the final third will improve with the return of Adebayor and an improvement in the form of Dempsey and Sigurdsson. Having Adebayor to aim long balls at should improve his production in that category, and better movement from the players in front of him should give him more options for the killer pass. But even if his creativity in the final third doesn't improve, his greater ability retaining possession and driving forward with the ball at his feet helps make up for what he lacks.

Now let's see what the other side of Dembele's game looks like.

% Ground 50-50s Won Tackle Success % Min per Tackle Min per Interception Dribbled Past per Game
Dembele 68% 84.21% 21 40 0.4
Modric 49% 71.43% 57 39 0.9

Luka Modric was always hailed for his surprising defensive ability given his slight frame and primary role as a creator. But for all of Luka's defensive over-achievement, Dembele absolutely dominates him in this respect. Dembele outstrips Modric in every defensive category by a fairly wide margin (except interceptions, where Dembele trails by a frankly negligible amount).

In fact, Dembele appears to dominate most of the Premier League when it comes to shutting down attacks. Of the top 10 most frequent tacklers, nobody has a higher success rate than our "creative" midfielder.

Some of you may be wishing he'd do a little less destroying and a little more creating, since y'know, that is supposed to be his job. And it's a fair point. But you can't discount the impact of having a guy who can break up play in the middle and immediately launch a quick counter, as he's done for us several times already this season.

And it also helps that the other half of our double pivot is picking up some of the slack.

Pass Accuracy Passes per Game Dribbles per Game Dispossessed per Game Long Balls per Game Key Pass per Game
Sandro 87% 44.7 .86 1.1 3.4 1.4
Parker 90% 59.3 .41 1.3 2.7 .8
Sandro (last year) 87.6% 34.8 0.7 .8 1.5 .5

Sandro's come into the team for the injured veteran Scott Parker and he's brought a lot to the table, having improved significantly in attack since last year. He dribbles more effectively, holds onto the ball better, and even contributes more in the final third than Parker and last year's Sandro.

In fact, if you combine his key passes with Dembele's, they only contribute .5 key passes per game fewer than Modric/Parker did last year. And given their improved dribbling over their counterparts, the offensive contribution from our central midfield pairing looks pretty solid. Not bad for a team who lost the best midfielder in England and missed out on their number one replacement target.

Finally, let's look at Sandro's defensive numbers and see if this boost in offense has made us more vulnerable in midfield.

% Ground 50-50s Won Tackle Success % Min per Tackle Min per Interception Dribbled Past per Game
Sandro 63% 72% 23 23.5 .1
Parker 57% 71.03% 23 26 1.3
Sandro (last year) 71% 73.81% 17 30.8 .3

So in spite of his increased offensive output, he still tops Parker defensively. A marginally better tackling success rate and an identical tackling frequency are the only areas Parker compares. Especially telling is the relative frequency Scotty got dribbled on by opponents: a whopping thirteen times more often than Sandro has this year.

The Sandro of last year looks like he was a tougher tackler than both of them, but I still think the new version is better. His positioning appears greatly improved, accounting for a higher number of interceptions and a reduced frequency of opponents dribbling past him. This suggests a more disciplined version of our midfield destroyer. Whatever losses in tackling he's suffered, he's still an improvement on Parker, and any perceived deficiencies are more than made up for by Dembele's rather phenomenal defensive statistics.

All told, our double pivot appears significantly stronger defensively than last year and is going a long way towards filling the Modric-shaped hole left in our attack. Although Modric/Parker averaged about 30 more passes a game than Dembele/Sandro make this year, I think part of that can be put down to stylistic differences in the teams. AVB has Spurs playing a much more counter-attacking game than Redknapp employed, which naturally reduces the number of passes circulated through midfield.

All we need now are Dempsey and Sigurdsson to find form and Adebayor to return to the team, and pretty soon you'll be asking, "Modric who?"

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