Heading into last season one of the open questions for Tottenham is how Mauricio Pochettino would structure his midfield. It was pretty well-established at that point that the previous season’s midfield had been much too open. But last summer Spurs didn’t bring in any new players to fix the midfield save the young, unproven teenager Dele Alli. And so as the season began, no one really knew what to expect from the Spurs midfield.
Initially Spurs began with an Eric Dier-Nabil Bentaleb partnership, which then gave way to Dier-Alli and finally to Dier and Mousa Dembele. Spurs’ best form came with Dier sitting deep and Dembele playing a slightly more advanced role linking attack and defense.
We’ve now had five games, two last season and three this season, to see how Dembele’s absence affects Spurs. And here’s the verdict: Mousa Dembele is certainly one of Tottenham’s three most important players (my list: Dembele, Alderweireld, and Lamela) and quite possibly its most important. This is why:
Dembele can single-handedly wreck the opposition’s pressing.
First, when Dembele is in the squad, Tottenham can deal with midfield presses without too much trouble. Dembele is the ideal press breaker because he’s one of the best players in England at retaining possession, he’s strong enough to hold off opposing midfielders, and he’s an accurate (if unimaginative) passer of the ball. So the ball gets played into his feet, the opposition closes on him, and they don’t win the ball. Dembele can then play even a relatively simple pass and the attack is set because of the way the opposition is out of position.
When Dembele is not in the squad, it becomes significantly harder for Spurs to retain possession. The 1-1 draw against Liverpool is a good example of how this works.
In the game’s opening minutes Spurs handled Liverpool’s press quite well and routinely punched through the midfield to get into the attacking third. That being said, the amount of work we had to do simply to get the ball through midfield was considerable:
We weren’t able to get many shots on frame during that time, but Tottenham broke through midfield multiple times and had some success playing balls over the top, most notably on the sequence that included a long ball to Alli who then tried to chip Simon Mignolet from a preposterous angle.
But even in this early phase of play when Tottenham was mostly managing Liverpool’s press, we saw a preview of what was to come:
As you can see in the above, as Vertonghen has drifted to the flank with the ball (something Spurs do routinely) Liverpool’s extremely high press forces him into a somewhat sloppy pass. Mane’s pressing is good, but Vertonghen could have played the simple ball to Wanyama. (As an aside, Sadio Mane is going to be Liverpool’s best player this season if his current form continues.)
The ball comes to Eriksen, who is having to drop deeper to receive the ball without Dembele in the squad. Eriksen’s first touch is poor. And from there, Liverpool have the best xG chance of the game. It’s hard to think of a better illustration of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp’s idea that the press is a team’s best playmaker.
All Liverpool does in the buildup is have one (very fast) attacker close down on Vertonghen. Vertonghen’s pass is OK, but not great. Eriksen has two more players bearing down on him and from there the break is on.
This happened a few times early and then Spurs mostly abandoned any attempt to consistently pass the ball through midfield because it was simply too risky given their inability to retain possession and Liverpool’s devastating speed on the counter.
As Spurs played more long balls, this led to more transition play and more counter attacks for Liverpool.
Once Spurs stopped trying to play the ball along the grass, things went from bad to worse. The quick, short passing game was rough going against the Reds frantic pressing, but the long ball strategy that tried to skip the midfield entirely backfired on Spurs. Consider this example with from the 18th minute. Toby Alderweireld hoofs the ball downfield, it pings around a bit, Liverpool wins it, and they’re off again:
Moments later Spurs have a set piece about 35-40 yards from goal on the left flank. Eriksen drills the ball into the box, Liverpool clears, and, again, Vorm is called upon to make an extremely risky clearance:
In this case, Spurs are not really doing anything wrong. This is just classic counter-attacking from Liverpool. You can’t really fault Spurs for it; it’s just brilliant play from Liverpool. That said, this sequence illustrates the biggest advantage Liverpool had on Spurs: They’re the Red Viper to our Mountain.
Just as in the duel (that somehow manages to be only like the fourth most disturbing thing ever shown on that show), the key for the powerful team is to keep the fight in spaces small enough that their opponent’s superior speed does not matter.
You want a compact unit moving across the field together, keeping the game under control. Long balls, however, expand the field and neutralize Tottenham’s strength advantage while simultaneously exaggerating the effect of Liverpool’s superior speed. When Spurs left a lot of space in behind and didn’t close on the ball quickly enough, it spelled trouble.
While there is more to playing a compact, disciplined pressing style than having a midfielder like Dembele in the side, Dembele is a massive asset as his ball control and defensive ability play a major role in helping Spurs control the flow of the game.
What further exacerbated the problem this weekend was Dele Alli’s deeper role in the team. Alli is a brilliant player, but his brilliance largely consists of his ability to try risky things that work far more often than they do for most players. The nutmegs, the inch perfect through balls, the dribbling through packed defenses, even some of his attempted shots on goal... they are all high-risk plays. When he’s in the attacking third, that’s fine. Indeed, it’s almost an asset because it creates transition sequences in smaller areas of the pitch where our press is able to shin. But in midfield, that same style becomes a liability.
When Spurs cannot sustain possession in the attacking third, it forces the team’s shape to become more expansive and spread out, which limits the effectiveness of Tottenham’s pressing. This is why it felt like Spurs were playing on the back foot from about the 15 minute mark until halftime. The team basically gave up trying to pass the ball through midfield, resorting instead to a steady diet of long balls. That played directly into Liverpool’s hands by allowing them to turn the game into a track meet—and there’s not a team in England that can hang with Liverpool in a track meet.
Christian Eriksen is less effective when Dembele is out.
There are two ways that Dembele’s absence hurts Eriksen. The first way is obvious enough: Dembele is one of Eriksen’s main supply lines in build up play. Eriksen is at his best when he’s getting a steady amount of service played into his feet in the attacking third. He struggles when Spurs are forced to play more long balls because he lacks the pace needed to chase down long balls played on the counter and lacks the size to bring them down when receiving them with his back to goal. When Spurs play long balls, Eriksen basically drops out of the game as an influencer simply because he isn’t going to get the sort of time on the ball he needs to be at his best. Eriksen, like most former Ajax players, thrives on having the ball at his feet with plenty of passing options. Since Dembele is one of the main ways he gets the ball in those situations, no Dembele means a diminished Eriksen.
The passes received maps for fixtures with Dembele versus fixtures without make the point effectively. Here is Eriksen in last season’s 2-1 win against Manchester City:
The passes he’s receiving that are played from more central positions are mostly from Dembele. The passes he’s receiving from wider areas are mostly from Danny Rose. Here is his passes received map from last weekend when Rose was in the squad but Dembele was not:
These two maps also set us up for the next point to make about how Dembele helps Eriksen. Not only does Moose play a lot of passes directly to Eriksen in areas where Eriksen is at his best, Dembele also facilitates the general style of play that helps Eriksen thrive.
Note the lack of service from Rose on the left flank in the game against Liverpool. When Tottenham’s attack is at its best, the team is retaining possession in the midfield and attacking third for sustained amounts of time. The narrow positioning of the front three allows the short passing game to work while the fullbacks surge forward and provide width. But when Spurs don’t sustain possession in the attacking half, the fullbacks can’t get forward. This has the effect, as far as Eriksen is concerned, of cutting off Eriksen’s other primary supply-line: passes from wide areas played into the half-spaces (or channels) by Rose.
It’s not simply that Dembele provides service to Eriksen; the Belgian midfielder also creates the conditions that allow Danny Rose to get forward more regularly and to also provide service to Eriksen. In short, when Dembele is missing, we lose much of what shapes the game in ways that allow Eriksen to shine as an attacker.
There is good news, of course. Dembele only has one more game of his suspension to serve and that game is a winnable-but-difficult trip to Stoke. Though Stoke is always a tough away fixture, the visits there have gotten a bit less intimidating since the departure of Tony Pulis. And this year Stoke has looked remarkably average in the opening fixtures. We have as well, of course, but in a game between Average Tottenham and Average Stoke, you’d expect Spurs to take the three points more often than not. Moreover, if we can take eight from 12 points with no Dembele, that’s a fantastic league result and it means that those are four league fixtures Dembele didn’t have to play, which hopefully means we can get Peak Dembele for the demanding Champions League fixtures we have coming up. Even so, the team’s dependence on an injury-prone midfield approaching 30 is a concern.