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Tactics Tuesday: Mousa Dembele is not an attacking midfielder

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It's obvious from his previous performances that Mousa Dembele is not an attacking midfielder. Tim Sherwood had to see for himself, anyways.

Shaun Botterill

Sunday's match against Everton featured several of the hallmarks of Spurs under Tim Sherwood: an inexplicably slow start, far too much space between midfield and defense, and three somewhat lucky points. Tactics can't explain the outcome; Tottenham Hotspur played poorly but won thanks to some quick thinking from Kyle Walker and a terrific finish by Emmanuel Adebayor.

One new wrinkle was the deployment of Mousa Dembele as the most advanced player among a trio of central midfielders. This move was ineffective on several levels. Dembele lacks the goal scoring instincts of a second striker, as was apparent as early as the second minute, when he failed to make a run onto a good Paulinho cross behind Everton's defense:

The ability to score goals, of course, is not a prerequisite to play as the most attacking midfielder. Elite attacking midfielders tend to provide the pass to unlock a defense. Again, this is not Dembele's skill set - he tends to dwell on the ball and prefers the safe pass to the risky pass that might create a goal-scoring opportunity, which explain why he consistently has one of the highest pass completion percentages in the Premier League. His reluctance to get forward left Emmanuel Adebayor isolated, which meant Everton found it easy to win the ball back when Spurs were able to pass the ball into Adebayor's feet.

Defensively, it seems like Dembele's terrific ability in the tackle would make him the ideal player to press high up the pitch, which is what Sherwood claimed he wanted his players to do in the post-match press conference. As it turns out, Dembele's languid style is not well suited for this role - he prefers to take the ball off opposition players as they come towards him rather than to harry them in the manner of Lewis Holtby or Clint Dempsey. Sherwood could be seen throughout the first half urging Dembele to press higher and not leave Adebayor isolated, to no avail. Not coincidentally, Spurs failed to recover possession in Everton's half near as many times as they did in the first meeting between the two teams this season.

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Presumably Sherwood wanted to see Dembele utilize his dribbling skills in a more advanced position, though this did not really work out during the game. Dembele's positioning as the most advanced midfielder meant that Gareth Barry and James McCarthy did not allow Dembele to dribble at a defender in a 1-v-1 situation.

While Sherwood deserves some credit for instructing Paulinho and Dembele to switch roles in the second half, it's puzzling that he asked Dembele to play the most attacking role in the first place. Dembele played that role in a few games early in the season and Spurs suffered from the exact same problems as they did in the Everton match. Whether Sherwood persists with playing Dembele in this role will be telling of his ability to learn from past experiences.

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A few quick hits:

  • There's been a lot of debate about Nabil Bentaleb's role in the team and whether he continues to deserve to start ahead of more renowned teammates. I understand why Sherwood has put him in the line-up - he passes forward more frequently and more successfully than Dembele, Etienne Capoue, or Paulinho. This passing helps Spurs be more fluid in attack. The trouble with Bentaleb is in defense, where he lacks the instincts of Capoue or Sandro. Here, he fails to track Leon Osman's run, resulting in one of Everton's three shots from the danger zone:

  • For me, he can remain in the starting line-up if Sherwood can get the rest of the team to defend more cohesively and not leave so much space between the lines. As it stands, Spurs style of defending under Sherwood places more responsibility on Bentaleb than he can currently handle and Capoue should come into the team, either at in combination with Bentaleb or at his expense.
  • Speaking of Capoue, it was nice to see him get some playing time, even if he nearly gave away a penalty that would have well and truly ended Spurs' Champion's League aspirations. Here's hoping he gets some playing time against Newcastle and Norwich.
  • Aaron Lennon has really struggled recently after several strong displays under Sherwood. If Townsend and Chadli are fit, it might be a good idea to drop him for the Newcastle game.
  • Townsend's back, baby!

  • On a more serious note, Townsend might be the Spurs player who stands to gain the most from playing under Sherwood. His best skill is picking the ball up in space and running at defenders and he should have more opportunities to do just that under Sherwood than he did under Andre Villas-Boas. Hopefully he gets the finishing to come around, too.