Tottenham Hotspur can probably consider themselves fairly unlucky to have returned from the San Siro with nothing after losing 2-1 to Inter Milan on Tuesday evening. That scoreline does not accurately reflect the story of the match.
Up until the 85th minute, when Mauro Icardi’s sumptuous volley levelled things up, Spurs had been good value for their lead. In the second half especially, the Premier League outfit had been able to dictate the pace of the game and never looked to be under any serious pressure.
Much credit for Spurs’ control must go to their midfield contingent. Mauricio Pochettino named Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier and Christian Eriksen as his side’s central trio. All three went out to Italy with something to prove following their woeful showing in the previous game against Liverpool.
Dembele in particular has looked out of sorts for a while now, and with both Harry Winks and Victor Wanyama approaching full fitness, his place in the starting XI must be coming under threat.
Against Inter Milan, the Belgium international did little to signal that he is on his way back to his best. The stats show that he was generally neat and tidy and did his defensive dues, but much like the scoreline in this match, those figures do not tell the full story.
97.5% pass accuracy is remarkably high and very impressive in such a huge match. Discounting last minute substitute Danny Rose, no other player on the pitch was so accurate in their distribution. However, this stat must be tempered by the fact that Dembele only completed a paltry 40 passes over the course of the 90 minutes. No Spurs player who played the entire match played less passes. No central midfielder on the pitch played less passes.
This is damning evidence of Dembele’s inability to take the game by the scruff of the neck and dominate the midfield territory himself. This time last year, he was making a habit of such imposing, domineering performances.
Not only did Dembele struggle to get on the ball, he was too easily dispossessed as well. Inter Milan were twice able to wrestle control of the ball away from the 31-year-old – no central midfielder on the pitch was dispossessed more often. Considering the area of the pitch that Dembele operates in he can’t afford to be so easily robbed of the ball as his team are likely to come under immediate pressure in that scenario.
That being said, there were some positives to Dembele’s game. Defensively he did a largely excellent job of shielding the Tottenham back line, making four tackles in the process – more than any of his teammates managed. On top of that, he also made two interceptions.
However, given that Dembele is one of Pochettino’s most experienced and trusted lieutenants, he must be able to exert much more control over these big European ties if Spurs are to have any hope of progressing deeper into the Champions League this season.
For all of his tidy distribution and positive defensive contributions, in the centre of the park over the course of 90 minutes Dembele managed only 56 touches and that is the most damning statistic of all. For context, both Eriksen and Dier registered more than 70 touches, whilst Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic racked up 90.
Dembele has been a top player for a long time, but it is becoming ever clearer that the point has been reached where can no longer win the midfield battle for Spurs in the biggest matches.