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Tactical Lessons from 2016-17: Life After Dembele

We used to be very very bad when Moose was hurt. Poche started to figure things out this year.

Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

In 2015-16 Tottenham rode a fixed first XI all the way to a third place finish. That season’s best squad selected itself with only Son Heung-Min being even remotely close to being on the same level as the player he would replace in the first XI, typically Erik Lamela.

The 4-2-3-1 system that Poche used with that team did a lot of things well: It created multiple shapes on the fly thanks to the versatility of Eric Dier, Jan Vertonghen, and Toby Alderweireld. The high press was devastating because of both the manic energy of Erik Lamela and the positional genius of Christian Eriksen. The midfield duo of Dembele and Dier provided an excellent defensive shield for the back line. Finally, the fullbacks, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, provided auxiliary width to compensate for the narrow positions taken up by Lamela and Eriksen in order to facilitate the high press.

The Challenge of Advancing the Ball

There was one thing that the system didn’t do particularly well, however: Advance the ball. Certainly, Vertonghen and Alderweireld could play long passes from deep positions and the fullbacks could make rampaging runs down the flanks. But these moves ended with low possession plays, more often than not—a long ball toward Harry Kane or a hopeful cross whipped into the box.

However, due to Eric Dier’s relative limitations as a midfielder, Tottenham couldn’t rely on their English utility man to consistently advance the ball through the center of the park. So long balls and fullback runs became a core part of how we moved the ball forward. The only other strategy was simple: Mousa Dembele does Mousa Dembele things.

Of course, as such strategies go this isn’t necessarily a bad one. Dembele is one of the best ball retention midfielders in his generation and one of the elite dribblers of his generation. In other words, he runs at defense with the ball and almost never loses the ball. That is... an excellent (and simple!) strategy for advancing the ball.

What was Plan B if Moose was hurt?

The trouble came, of course, when Dembele got hurt—as he frequently does. Dembele’s absence hurt the defensive structure in Spurs’ midfield, but the real damage came in ball progression. With the elimination of the threat of any kind of ball progression through midfield, teams could press our center backs, protect the box to neutralize the threat from crosses, and wait to hit us on the break. The results were ugly.

In Moose’s 27 appearances last season, Spurs went 15-11-1 with 55 goals scored and 19 goals conceded. Averaged out over a season, that would have us finishing on 79 points, 77 goals scored, and 27 goals conceded.

In the 11 games in which he did not appear, we went 4-2-5, scoring 14 and conceding 16. Averaged out over a season, that would have us finishing on 48 points, 48 goals scored, and 55 goals conceded. (This, incidentally, is probably not far off where we ought to have finished in Pochettino’s first season, in which Dembele hardly ever played, were it not for the late game heroics of Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane and some absurd goalkeeping from Hugo Lloris.)

So with Dembele, 2015-16 Tottenham was a lock for top four and around an 80 point team with a GD of +50, which definitely has them in the title hunt. Without Moose, Spurs were squarely midtable.

How did Pochettino fix this?

This season began with Dembele suspended for his (totally hilarious) eye gouge of Diego Costa in the May 2016 clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. So in the season’s early days, we played Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama in midfield in the normal 4-2-3-1. This... did not work. Dier is not (yet?) able to consistently push the ball forward effectively and Wanyama is no better most of the time. Once again, Spurs reverted back to Bad Dembeleless Spurs.

But then in December Spurs started to figure something out: The pivotal moment came in December when Mauricio Pochettino introduced the three at the back system which can either be described as 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 depending on how you classify Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli. This system, of course, worked wonders when Dembele was in the squad. But it also solved the problem of how to progress the ball consistently without Dembele.

When he is playing at left center back in a four man defense, Jan Vertonghen needs to be relatively careful with his positioning. He can flare out wide to receive the ball and push up toward midfield, but he can’t really progress beyond that point because he leaves far too much space in behind him if he does so. However, in a three man defense, Vertonghen is free to surge forward more because he knows that the central defender in the back three can slide over to cover for him as needed. We have seen Jan do this repeatedly this season and it has added another wrinkle to the Tottenham attack.

Likewise, switching to three at the back turns our fullbacks, who Poche wants to basically use as wingbacks anyway, to actually play like wingbacks whose primary role is to dominate the flank by getting up and down the wing, supporting the attack as much as possible and contributing defensively only as needed.

Finally, the move to 3-4-3 meant that Christian Eriksen’s positioning varied more, especially as Dele continued his evolution into more of a second striker. This meant that Eriksen could receive the ball in deeper midfield areas and then advance it himself. In the 4-2-3-1, Eriksen typically stays further forward and looks to drift across the front three, influencing play more once the ball gets into the attacking third. But in the 3-4-3, Eriksen frequently dropped off into midfield to support Wanyama and advance the ball with aggressive forward passing, as he did on both goals in our 2-0 home win against Chelsea.

Will there be life after Dembele for Spurs?

Moose will turn 30 this July. He’s played nearly 400 senior-level league matches and has now played at least 24 Premier League matches in seven straight seasons. He also has a history of muscle issues, which will likely become more and more of a problem as he ages. Spurs can probably get one more season of peak Dembele before the Belgian begins to decline. It’s essential, then, that Tottenham figure out a way of consistently winning even when Dembele is unavailable. The three at the back system allowed us to do that this year.

Looking ahead, it’s possible Pochettino will continue with that system which both minimizes Wanyama’s limitations and fixes the defining problem Tottenham’s attack has had in the Pochettino era. Another possibility, of course, is that Harry Winks continues to develop and is able to add a new dimension to our midfield thanks to his ability to pass the ball vertically. Third, we might sign a midfielder this summer who can help progress the ball. (Please be Naby Keita please be Naby Keita please be Naby Keita.)

The key thing is to find that midfield option. One problem with the Pochettino era so far is that it takes Poche 3-4 months to figure his team out. He didn’t land on last season’s best XI till November and didn’t figure out the 3-4-3 until January this season. If the team is to win trophies or make noise in Europe, that timeline will have to be compressed dramatically. This means the team needs Plan Bs that can work when Dembele is not available. There are signs we may have figured that out. We’ll probably find out next season.