There was a great deal of surprise when Moussa Dembele made his £15million move not to one of the top four sides but instead across London from Fulham to Tottenham.
A goal on debut, followed by strong midfield performances until a hip injury in the winter, made Spurs’ rivals look foolish.
Fast forward twelve months and the languid Belgian is starting to get some heat from the White Hart Lane terraces.
Ineffective performances have contributed to Tottenham’s goalscoring struggles this season despite dominating possession (59.3% on average, second only to Manchester City in the Premier League) and it was no surprise that Dembele’s half-time removal and Sandro’s introduction helped make Tottenham look a much more energetic and ambitious team in their 1-0 defeat to Newcastle on Sunday.
So what has happened? Two things – poor form and poor management decisions.
Let’s look at Moussa’s form first.
Dembele is neither one thing nor the other in Tottenham’s midfield.
The ex-Willem II and AZ forward was converted into a midfielder at Fulham. Strong on the ball, with tight dribbling skills and a good touch, the 26-year-old rarely gave the ball away.
However, he is not the defensive lynchpin a manager can build their midfield on. His positioning is often poor, he gets dragged away from the central area and his midfield partner too easily. He does not work hard enough to get back into position and lacks the bite in the tackle and the overall aggression of a player like Sandro.
A confident Dembele puts his footprint on a game. An out of form version hides in anonymity, quite happily picking up a man even if the danger is elsewhere, and when Spurs are on the ball he is too often hiding in someone’s pocket or going backwards, away from the areas where his dribbling ability will do damage.
In three short months newboy Paulinho has scored more goals for Tottenham than Dembele. In 15 appearances this season he has no goals and no assists. His passing does not make up for his lack of goals, and his nice touches and dribbles simply slow down the play.
But, as always, it is a vicious circle. Dembele’s form is suffering. Tottenham’s form is suffering. While that indicates that Tottenham’s No.19 can be a fair-weather play, good when the side is on a roll but hiding when the going gets tough, it also shows that the current issues with Andre Villas-Boas’ tactics are also responsible.
There is a lack of direction and cohesion in midfield, which drags Spurs players deep and allows the opposition to sit back and contain, and not enough players make runs into the danger zone.
Dembele is as much to blame for this as anyone, hanging back even when afforded the cover of a Sandro or Etienne Capoue, rather than getting in and around the box, but this malaise has been ongoing for so long that the manager must ultimately take the blame for failing to make a change.
None of Paulinho, Dembele, Sandro or Capoue are natural playmakers, while the No.10s of Christian Eriksen and Lewis Holtby do not offer enough of a goal threat to play behind a loan striker.
Inverted wingers make Tottenham narrow at the top end of the pitch, and again the likes of Nacer Chadli, Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend do not offer enough goals.
A change needs to be made and with Tottenham switching to a more orthodox 4-4-2 after the introduction of Jermain Defoe on Sunday, with two strikers and Eriksen on the left, the Lilywhites racked up 14 shots on target.
A more drastic option could be to move Eriksen inside, and play two natural wingers.
Both systems will mean dropping one or two of Paulinho, Sandro or Dembele, and at the moment the Belgian is at the back of the midfield queue.
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