Mousa Dembele missed out on Tottenham Hotspur's opening match of the season against Everton thanks to the suspension he picked up last season, and he was a huge miss. While Spurs' midfield wasn't terrible in their 1-1 draw, it was clear that they lacked someone to link the midfield and attack. Without Dembele to bring everything together, Dele Alli was ineffective and Christian Eriksen performed a bit below his very high standard.
The two players who started in midfield in Dembele's place, Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama, are good players. They are not, however, similar to Dembele. Dribbling or passing forward to beat a defender is not the forte of either player; they're both athletic defensive midfielders with reasonable technical skill.
Neither Dier or Wanyama was bad, but they were too similar against Everton, and their passing maps show off the problem that playing them together can create. These passing maps are all from FourFourTwo StatsZone, which most of our readers are probably familiar with by now. If you're not, I recommend playing around with it, because it's very cool. First up, here's Dier's passing map from Saturday.
This is not uncharacteristic for Dier. When he's playing next to Dembele -- or even Ryan Mason -- he's asked to pick the safest passes, often recycling possession to his midfield partner or the central defenders. A failure to get the ball to Dele, Eriksen and Erik Lamela in dangerous areas is not necessarily a fatal flaw in an individual performance for him. But here, below, is Wanyama's passing map. Neither of these is bad on their own, but together...
...yikes. Between the two of them, they got the ball into a teammate in a central area where a dangerous attack could get going less than a half-dozen times. For contrast, here's a particularly good game by Mousa Dembele, last season's 3-0 victory over Manchester United.
Not only are there more forward passes and passes into dangerous areas, but they're coming from a different place too. Notice how much higher up the pitch most of Dembele's attacking passes come from? He's frequently dribbling forward, drawing a defender towards him, then making a pass. He's getting the ball into better areas and creating space to boot. Spurs probably would have beaten Everton if one of their central midfielders did either of those things.
Dembele still has three games left on his suspension, so Mauricio Pochettino will need to find a solution to this problem without Moose. Here are the three easiest ways that can happen, without any kind of dramatic tactical overhaul, ranked from personally least preferable to most preferable.
3. Wanyama can carry the ball forward
Wanyama isn't quite as technically solid as Dier, and whenever he was asked to play a more expansive role for Southampton, it usually didn't go very well. He shouldn't be trying difficult passes to beat defenders. Wanyama is, however, an above-average dribbler. He's not terrible at carrying the ball forward. This isn't ideal -- there will be turnovers -- but if he can make midfielders step to him and create some space for Alli, that'll help Spurs a lot.
2. Dier can get less conservative
Of the two starting midfielders on Saturday, Dier has the better range of passing. It's rare, but we've seen him play some excellent through balls on occasion. He can do more as a passer than he's asked to do in most games. Don't be surprised if he plays less conservative next week.
1. Give Harry Winks a shot
Winks getting regular minutes throughout preseason and not getting loaned out suggests that Poche has some faith in him. His performances in those preseason games -- as well as Under-21 matches last season -- were very good. Spurs would be losing something defensively by benching either of Dier or Wanyama for Winks, but he's worlds better than both of them as a dribbler and creative passer, and has improved enough as an athlete over the last year that he's unlikely to get torched on the counter. It's a risk, but at home against a poor Crystal Palace side, it's a risk worth taking.