While Tottenham Hotspur’s 4-2 defeat at the hands of Chelsea last Saturday left many supporters frustrated, there was a feeling that Andre Villas-Boas’ side were somewhat handicapped before a ball was even kicked. But while the box office absence of Gareth Bale left many pining for the installation of a birthing pool at White Hart Lane, it was the absence of Mousa Dembele, that felt a little more palpable.
Nothing should be taken away from Roberto Di Matteo’s side, who exhibited a brand of football that was both classy as it was expansive and even if Bale and Dembele had been playing, there are no guarantees that the magic of Juan Mata wouldn’t have wielded a similar outcome.
You can take your pick from what part of the Spurs XI left you particularly exasperated, but it was matters in the engine room that seemed to impact a rather unique form of disappointment. With Bale, Spurs fans are all too aware of his mercurial talent and he’s been around long enough for supporters to at least brace themselves for a forthcoming absence – they know what to expect when he’s out the side and nine times out of ten, it isn’t particularly enjoyable.
But when Dembele’s name was left missing off the team sheet, a very more unfamiliar anxiety cast itself upon White Hart Lane. Fans have watched in glee over the last few weeks as the Belgian has imposed himself as one of the key pieces in the AVB jigsaw in recent weeks. It takes quite the player to inflict a similar level of woe in their absence as Bale, but Dembele seems to have managed to pull the trick off.
Indeed, after only five Premier League games in a Spurs shirt, Dembele has become not so much a key piece but a vital component in Andre Villas-Boas’ side and for the lingering few that harnessed any form of doubt about that, Saturday offered a very emphatic demonstration. Tottenham were outsmarted, overrun and overpowered in central midfield by Di Matteo’s side. Bale may be the more talented footballer and the one, true match winner at White Hart Lane but Dembele already sees to be the glue that bonds.
The central midfield pairing of Tom Huddlestone and Sandro, were themselves, relatively handicapped last Saturday. For all the analysis on his credentials, attitude and future at White Hart Lane, it’s worth noting that Huddlestone remains woefully short of solid Premier League playing time and until he harnesses a run of matches in this side, he’s going to find it difficult to get up to full speed. A first league start of the season against Chelsea was a baptism of fire to say the least.
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But as much of an age old cliché as it may represent, the 25-year-old’s lack of mobility seemed to be a perpetual issue for much of his 67 minutes on the pitch. At their very best this season, Spurs have been a flowing blur of attacking white and perhaps none more so than their first half display away to Manchester United. Yet it’s hard to imagine Huddlestone would have been able to shift defense into attack in the sort of manner Dembele did for Bale’s goal at Old Trafford. Without the Belgian, the fluidity was gone and there was Spurs were devoid of any form of catalyzing element.
But it’s not just from the attacking perspective that Spurs missed the Belgian, either. Spurs fans saw first hand the fragility of Villas-Boas’ 4-2-3-1 system when the midfield aren’t executing their roles properly. During their first three games, the midfield pairing of Jake Livermore and Sandro seemed woefully inept because the holding pair have to have an understanding of when to sit and when to go. The common urban myth is that AVB likes to play two defensive midfielders at home, but that’s not necessarily the case.
The holding pair must be fluid, interchangeable and at least 50% of the combination must be able to create, not just negate. With Dembele and Sandro, we have seen the pair develop a growing understanding and they seem at ease at counteracting each other’s on pitch decisions. With Jake Livermore and Tom Huddlestone, they appear too defined in their styles of play to really make the 4-2-3-1 stick. This isn’t to say they don’t have great individual qualities, but in this set-up, Dembele is the jewel in the crown.
It’s easy to pick on Huddlestone and it’s worth mentioning that Sandro probably played as poorly as he has done in quite some time in a Spurs shirt. How much that can be attributed to Dembele’s absence is arguable, but you’d certainly like to think that the Brazilian doesn’t have too many off days like that in the near future. But for all his attributes, the difference is that Sandro’s job is of chief destroyer. Huddlestone was the one tasked with instigating a creative spark.
Yet throughout this team we saw a Spurs side visibly weakened by the loss of their key midfielder and it was felt from top to bottom. With no one to instigate sweeping moves forward from defense, Spurs’ counter-attacking weapons of Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe felt a little more redundant. With a distinct lack of midfield dynamism, the defense seemed exposed and less confident to build from the back with a very rigid midfield pair in front of them.
Without their link from defense to attack, Spurs looked like a Ferrari running with a gearbox of a Range Rover. And they played like one, too. Of course, Clint Dempsey seemed flat, Gylfi Sigurdsson was at times anonymous and maybe the less said of William Gallas’ performance, the better. But Tottenham felt fundamentally flawed in midfield and the loss of Mousa Dembele reverberated throughout the entire Tottenham team.
But perhaps the alarming effect that Mousa Dembele’s absence had upon the team might give Andre Villas-Boas food for thought. The Belgian is the glue that binds the Portuguese’s new set-up together. Tom Huddlestone might represent the metaphorical Range Rover gearbox, but he’d probably work well, if actually put in a Range Rover. There’s more than one way to play and if Dembele continues to miss game time, a temporary tweak in style wouldn’t be so bad at all. The 4-2-3-1 seems lost at sea without it’s key, Belgian power source, to make it work.
In the meantime, Spurs physios will be doing all they can to get him fit again. Make no mistake about it, the Belgian is now as important to Tottenham as anyone else in N17.
How do you feel about the impact Mousa Dembele has had since joining Tottenham Hotspur? Are Spurs already reliant upon him or does AVB simply need to tinker the team slightly in his absence? Let me know on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and tell me what you think.