Scott Parker, Mousa Dembele, and Tottenham's defensive midfield problem

Michael Regan

Scott Parker is an excellent footballer. He was Tottenham's club player of the year last season. Sure, he faded down the stretch, and if we're all being honest with ourselves, Younes Kaboul, Luka Modric, and Gareth Bale were probably all better, with Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Emmanuel Adebayor, and even Rafael Van der Vaart playing at roughly equivalent levels. The point, however, remains, that Parker was a crucial player to last year's fourth place squad as an ever-present in defensive midfield, playing with a combination of determination and passion unmatched among recent Spurs midfielders.

In the first half of the ongoing Premier League season, Sandro was one of the best players in the Tottenham squad and was arguably its most consistent performer. When Sandro went down with a season-ending injury, the general consensus among Tottenham supporters was that while the injury was certainly disappointing, the squad would be able to cope given that we had an established international midfielder to take his place in the squad. The problem with this line of thought, though, is that it doesn't take into account the difference between Scott Parker and Sandro or between this year's Tottenham midfield and last year's.

Broadly speaking, Parker and Sandro are both "defensive" midfielders in that their primary responsibility is to break up opposition chances, but while Parker and Sandro are both defensive midfielders, the ways in which they go about performing their defensive roles couldn't be more different. Where Sandro likes to sit in front of the back four and stamp out attacks as they come at him with his physicality and underrated positional sense, Parker prefers to press higher up the pitch, maniacally chasing whoever has the ball at any given moment in time.

The same can be said of their offensive styles; Parker likes to dribble and personally get involved in the attack, whereas Sandro tends to stay closer to the halfway line and In a vacuum, neither of these playing styles is really superior to the other, but given the current construction of Tottenham's squad, Sandro's screening game is a much better fit. How, you might ask, could such a player be so crucial to his team one year and a poor fit the next? The answer lies in the changes to the rest of the Spurs midfield. While last season's Parker played alongside Luka Modric in the center of the Tottenham midfield, this year's team features Mousa Dembele in Modric's deep-lying playmaker role. Why, exactly, does this change matter? I'll get to that point in a moment, but before we get there that it's important to understand the context in which this conversation is taking place.

In the five league matches that Parker has played since Sandro's injury (including the QPR match in which Raniere went off in the twenty-fifth minute), Spurs have struggled to create chances in all but the but the Manchester United game, scoring a total of five goals. Of the five goals, four have been scored by Gareth Bale, and all of these goals have been brilliant individual efforts which Bale has created for himself as opposed to team goals created by any sort of intricate passing. The first, against Norwich, was the result of a brilliant solo run from within his own half, while the second of the four, in the West Brom match, was a blasted effort from distance. The final two, both scored against Newcastle, consisted of an excellent free kick and a defensive clearance that led to an Adebayor flick-on. Simply put, Tottenham's last seven points have been the result of individual brilliance from Gareth Bale, and the team as hasn't created enough chances.

So now that you've considered all of this, you're thinking, "What does Scott Parker have to do with this, his job is to defend isn't it? If anything this should imply that our other attacking players should be benched, especially Dempsey who's been rather poor since he came to Spurs." This logic is completely understandable, and you'd be excused for thinking along these lines. The problem is that while Scott Parker is nominally a defensive midfielder, he seems to think that he should be doing more than the defensive midfield role entails.

In the match against Newcastle, he was regularly found higher up the pitch than Mousa Dembele. When the Magpies were in possession, Parker chased after the man in possession, and when Spurs had the ball he made sideways dribbles around Newcastle defenders. As I've stated earlier, neither of these are bad things in a vacuum. The problem with Parker playing high up the pitch is that it forces Dembele to move deeper into the midfield so the gap between midfield and defense isn't so large. Even if you think Parker's dribbles forward are a positive for the team, he is inarguably a less skilled dribbler than Dembele is. In short, Parker's tendency to play higher up the pitch both offensively and defensively has reversed the roles of our two midfielders, with the more creative Dembele forced to sit deeper, preventing him from making his trademarked runs through the opposition midfield.

These changes in the team are fairly obvious; since Parker came in for Sandro, the Tottenham defense has done as well as ever, but the team has struggled to create, being saved by Gareth Bale's individual brilliance in three consecutive matches. When paired with Luka Modric in last year's Tottenham team, Scott Parker typically did the same things that he is doing this season. He pressed relatively high up the pitch, and he got involved with the attack. When he moved up, Modric moved backwards to fill the gap between the midfield and defense. This worked last season because Modric and Dembele are entirely different players despite filling the same role for the team. While Dembele uses his close control and strength to dribble through opposition midfields, Modric excelled at spraying diagonal balls into wide areas.

If Scott Parker is high up the field doing Scott Parker ballerina turns, dribbling, and pressing people when playing with Luka Modric, everything is fine, because Modric can dictate tempo and spread balls into wide areas when he drops deep. Scott Parker doing these things alongside Mousa Dembele is not fine, because Dembele isn't really good at dictating tempo and making the sort of seeing-eye passes that Modric has made his name with.

Moussa Dembele's best attributes are precisely the things that Scott Parker is doing in his stead, and this has thrown the team's entire attacking pattern out of whack. Furthermore, it is doubly important that players who are in the same side as Moussa Dembele emphasize quick passes to circulate possession quickly, as this is easily Dembele's biggest weakness as a deep-lying midfield creator. When Parker receives the ball, his instincts are to hold onto the ball for several seconds before passing to an open teammate. Having two players who like to take their time before passing the ball has slowed down the Tottenham attack to a nearly glacial pace, and it has been painfully obvious to this supporter that the tempo needs to be increased if Spurs want to get back to being the dynamic attacking side that we have seen at times this season.

It should be obvious now, that even a fully fit Scott Parker in his best form is not a great fit in the current Tottenham side. The problem right now is that Scott Parker is far from his best form, leaving Andre Villas Boas with a serious decision to make in defensive midfield.

Looking at the options in defensive midfield

Jake Livermore is probably the closest approximation to Sandro in the Tottenham midfield if we're just looking at his skillset. He is considerably more athletic than Parker (if you watched the end of the Newcastle match, you'll see a Gareth Bale breakaway where Livermore was the second Spurs player down the pitch, showing off his underrated pace), and he's a much more positionally disciplined player to boot. If Andre Villas-Boas tells Livermore to play a shielding role in front of the defense, then you had better bet that's exactly what Livermore will do. Additionally, Livermore is much more apt to circulate possession quickly than Parker, which would theoretically help to solve some of our offensive worries. I would be remiss to point out that playing Livermore doesn't come without risks. Despite playing well as a backup at times last season, he's still somewhat of an unknown quantity. There's a legitimate question as to whether he has enough talent to contribute to a Champions League contending squad. All of that being said, I'd like to see Livermore at the very least get a chance to start alongside Dembele in the pivot. Besides, we'll never know what he has to offer unless he gets a chance.

Lewis Holtby is obviously a much more attack-minded player than Scott Parker, so suggesting that he play alongside Dembele in a deep role may seem a bit presumptuous, but just try to hear me out for a minute. Moussa Dembele has shown himself to be very capable defensively, winning both tackles and interceptions with regularity. A Dembele - Holtby partnership would feature Dembele as the deeper player with Holtby as the more attack-minded member of the pivot. Watching Holtby in his time at Schalke and now Tottenham, I've always thought his game was more reminiscent of Luka Modric's than Rafael Van der Vaart's. His constant efforts to get on the saw him dropping very deep at times to get onto the ball in the Newcastle match, and his terrier-like pressing high up the pitch has been reminiscent of Parker's. What I'm getting at here is that for a supposed number ten, Lewis Holtby does a lot of work defensively and in the attacking build up, and I feel that he wouldn't be out of place in a deeper midfield position; he has even played in one for Schalke in the past.

If Scott Parker is going to play press high up the field and try to add to the attack, it might make sense to switch him with a guy who will actually do creative things when he's in attacking positions to go along scrappy pressing. A partnership of Dembele and Holtby is probably too lightweight for a match against the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea, but I'd love to see Villas-Boas try it out against a weaker team that will set out to defend for an entire match. If it works, then who knows? Manchester United's partnership between Carrick and Cleverley doesn't look like the most imposing defensively, but they're running away with the league. A further benefit of playing a Dembele - Holtby combination is that it allows one more attacking player to get onto the field and add even more creativity. Imagine the number chances a midfield three of Dembele, Holtby, and Gylfi Sigurdsson could create. And God knows that this lineup would be a lot of fun to watch. Audere est facere and all that jazz.

Tom Huddlestone has been miscast as a creative midfielder since Villas-Boas has taken over at the club, seen as somewhat of a poor man's Xabi Alonso; a big, slow, midfielder who offers an incredible array of passing both short and long. Tom Huddlestone is not a creative midfielder, he's a defensive midfielder. His best season at Tottenham was the best in the club's recent history, as Spurs finshed on 70 points and qualified for the Champions League. Huddlestone formed an effective partnership with Luka Modric, playing as a defensive midfielder who just happened to have the complementary ability to play breathtaking long passes from deep areas. Huddlestone has never been a quick player, but his physicality and surprising coordination mean that he's much more effective in the tackle than he usually gets credit for being. Even if Huddlestone has looked even slower than usual this season, he will sit deep and play a screening role if he is asked to do so, spraying Hollywood passes out wide when he does get the ball. I still think Huddlestone has a role to play for this Tottenham side, and he's a better fit next to Dembele than Parker is in my opinion. Still, he's looked off the pace for much of the campaign and is justifiably behind several other players in the current pecking order.

Tom Carroll is a promising young player who looks to have a Premier League future (whether or not it will be at Tottenham Hotspur is a debate for another day), but he isn't a realistic option to play for a Champions League contending squad, especially in a defensive role. Other young players not on loan, such as Massimo Luongo look to have the potential to eventually become Premier League players, but they're largely in the same boat as Carroll in that they are too young and inexperienced to add to the current Tottenham side.

Scott Parker is arguably a poor fit in the current Spurs lineup, but Villas-Boas looks like he's going to give him every chance to regain the form of last season. If Scott Parker is to play, he needs to learn to play a more controlled, shielding role like the one Sandro has played this season and circulate possession at a higher tempo. The worry is that at age 32 Parker will be incapable of changing the way he has played for most of his career. Additionally, Parker lacks the physicality and underrated pace of a Sandro or even a Livermore to be able to meet opponents in deep areas and muscle them off the ball.

Recommended reading from Michael Cox of Zonal Marking, on Sandro and Parker.

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