Thursday night tested the hearts of Tottenham Hotspur fans across the world. What should have been a nice little trip to fashionable Milan turned into a tense, stressful evening, with Spurs putting their supporters through the wringer.
The absence of Gareth Bale played a big part, as did Aaron Lennon’s presence on the bench, but as against Liverpool it was Moussa Dembele’s deployment that caused Tottenham’s biggest problems.
Andre Villas-Boas was in reflective mood after the game.
"Every goal was a boost of motivation for them and knife in the back for us," Villas-Boas told reporters at the San Siro. "When the mind does not work, everything becomes a catastrophe.
"What happened to us tonight was what happened to Inter in London. They are not as bad as their performance in London and we're not as a bad as the performance showed today.
"I didn't underestimate the task we had and I don't think the players did either. We gambled to get the away goal and it was difficult in the end. This was a great lesson for us and something we can learn from.
"I always believed in my players. The desire to reach the last eight of the competition was always there, even in extra-time and that has to be an excellent sign for us. We have played teams like Lazio, Lyon and Inter. It's fantastic satisfaction and achievement to be in the quarters."
The gamble for the away goal did not pay off until Emmanuel Adebayor’s 96th minute strike. While Spurs had a lot of the possession, they failed to produce a real threat to the Internazionale goal, and it was no coincidence that their goal came when Dembele, reverted back to his usual central position, strode forward with the ball and forced a saved from Samir Handanovic, the Inter keeper, which Adebayor capitalised on.
Dembele’s effort on goal was reminiscent of his tie-winning, last minute striker against Lyon in the previous round. At Anfield last weekend the Belgium was one of the few Spurs players who created anything of note, and his role on the right flank was a waste of his talents.
The problem is exacerbated by the skills of Scott Parker and Jake Livermore. Neither are playmakers, nor dribblers like Dembele. Their range of passing is limited and inconsistent, and while they will both make bursts forward they like the quality to be a threat in the final third.
This is not a problem in itself, but given that Villas-Boas wants his team to be on the front foot, getting ‘away goals’ and playing a high line, fielding two defensively minded central midfielders can cause problems, especially when the two players are not doing their defensive duties properly.
The missing Sandro is a big loss, but arguably the sale of Luka Modric and the breakdown of Joao Moutinho’s move to Spurs are bigger issues that must be addressed in the summer. Dembele is not a playmaker in the truest sense of the word but he can create chances and can offer a goal threat, something none of Tottenham’s other central midfielders, like Tom Huddlestone or young Tom Carroll, can.
The 4-4-2 formation compounded Tottenham’s woes on Thursday, but the strikers were always going to suffer because AVB’s men did not have someone who could take the ball from the defence and make a pass to the front men.
Parker and Livermore are good, honest, professionals, the type who can earn a 1-0 win in Milan with hard work and endeavour, much like Sandro and Wilson Palacios did two years ago in the San Siro in the Champions League. However, as the new manager is yet to show a willingness to play with such defensive tactics, Moussa Dembele has to play in central midfield. Without him Spurs look blunt, disjointed, and pedestrian.
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