Tim Sherwood has plans for Moussa Dembele. In a recent interview on the Spurs home page, Sherwood came out and said that he would like to use the utilitarian Belgian midfielder in a different way, specifically encouraging him to move up the pitch and get into dangerous positions around the opponent's box:
"Mousa's a nightmare to play against because he can drop his shoulder and leave you on your backside!
"Opponents can't get the better of him physically either. He's such a strong man; he gets away from players; he's a real top talent.
"We're trying to get him further forward to play in and around the penalty area because he has the capability of creating and perhaps scoring more goals. We're getting him into the areas to achieve that.
"He's very well respected within the group. The lads know the quality he possesses and treat him with the respect he deserves."
If you're a fan of Dembele, as I am, then this is extremely encouraging news. Dembele was purchased in 2012 just after the sale of Luka Modric to Real Madrid. It was, at the time, a bit of a strange purchase. No one (despite the rumination on this site at the time) really expected Spurs to purchase a like-for-like replacement for Luka – nobody has the vision that Luka had during his time with Spurs, and that's still apparent when you watch him with Real. Dembele was a highly-regarded player at Fulham, but operated more often than not as a #10. He was offensively minded but wasn't seen as the deep-lying playmaker that we all expected. We all wanted Joao Moutinho, remember? brett rainbow, in his pre-site writing days, penned an excellent fan post that examined Dembele's production at Fulham and suggested that Dembele would be a great buy for Spurs.
Under Andre Villas-Boas, Dembele proved to be a fixture in the side, but still not in the expected manner. AVB rigid 4-2-3-1 double-pivot meant that Dembele was playing much further back than he was used to at Fulham. The rigidity of the system and AVB's instruction meant that Dembele was given less freedom to move up the pitch and instead was expected to dictate play from deep. The composition of the midfield pairing also made a significant impact on Dembele's play -- when he was paired as a box-to-box midfielder with Sandro as a holder, Moussa invariably played well, even spectacularly. However, AVB was more likely to pair Dembele as a holding midfielder with Scott Parker as the runner, an infuriating combo that did not suit either player.
The tl;dr version of all this is Sandro-Dembele good, Dembele-Parker bad. And even when paired with Sandro, the nature of AVB's system meant that Moussa would spend his time on the field playing much deeper, was given more defensive duties than he was used to, and was frequently seen making parallel or back passes to the defenders instead of putting through-balls into dangerous positions. This, more than anything else, is probably why many Tottenham fans are so split on Dembele's tenure at Spurs – more often than not, he was misused under AVB.
Under Tim Sherwood, Dembele has already started to reap the rewards of some additional freedom. Against Swansea, Dembele was placed in between Nabil Bentaleb and Christian Eriksen and was encouraged to play higher up the pitch and attack the Swansea defenders. He had four "take-ons" (i.e. attempts to beat defenders), all of them successful, and all in the final third of the pitch. Moreover, Dembele also had a number of wonderful runs out of midfield, one of which (a beautiful through-ball from Kyle Walker) was .gif-ified by brett rainbow in his Tactics Tuesday piece. His passing wasn't too shabby either. In short, Dembele was masterful in that game, looking more like the player who excelled at Fulham than he has for the past season and a half.
So let's take Sherwood at his word that we're going to see more offensive movement from Dembele. What would that look like, and what tactical formations would utilize Dembele to the best effect?
1. Pair Dembele with Sandro in Sherwood's 4-4-2.
When your midfield runner darts forward, there's a danger of being susceptible to a counter-attack. That danger is mitigated somewhat by having an elite holding midfielder such as Sandro who can watch for holes in the midfield. This formation also assumes you have someone such as Eriksen or Chadli who can drop back to help cover if needed.
2. Use as a running midfielder in a 4-3-3.
If you discount his time at Fulham as a central attacking midfielder, this would seem to be Dembele's natural role. He'd have a holder (Sandro) behind him anchoring play, and a trequartista-style player (Eriksen) in front of him exploiting gaps in between the midfield and defense. Presumably this creates space for Dembele, when he's on the ball, to take on defenders, or when he's off the ball, to dart forward into gaps in the defense. It's the kind of role that Paulinho tried to play under AVB, but he was never quite successful. But that, as they say, is another post. This formation also overlaps nicely with...
3. MOAR 4-1-4-1
Sherwood used this formation at Swansea and it was no doubt effective. Although this takes away a second striker for extra oomph in the midfield, it's a nice system away from home or against teams (like City?) with similar muscular midfields. Sherwood's quotes about Dembele this week may simply be an indication that in the 4-1-4-1 he's found a formation that works for the players he has at his disposal, and that he'll plan to stick with it.
4. Use as a #10
While this seems on the surface to be a shade on the cray-cray side, assuming a fully healthy squad it's maybe not that bad of an option. The concern is that Dembele isn't really that great of a scoring threat, and there are players in the squad that fit that role much better than he, Fulham history aside.
5. FRAAB Bale-esque free role (YOLO)
This isn't going to happen, but I wanted to put in an equivalent "bacon sandwich" option.
With all the preliminary knee-jerky conclusions about Sherwood's operational nous ("tactically Amish," "refreshingly retro"), it's especially heartening to see him recognize something in Moussa Dembele that AVB either never saw or ignored. With Paulinho's imminent return to the squad and possibly Tom Carroll being recalled from his loan at QPR, Sherwood will no doubt have plenty of tools in his midfield toolbox, but freeing up Dembele to express himself in an offensively-minded tactical structure could pay dividends over the course of the season.