Monday 2nd May 2016. To say there have been better days as a Spurs fan would be an understatement. Leading 2-0 at half-time to keep the title race with Leicester alive for another week, Chelsea managed to claw the game back to 2-2 to end those dreams and spark an end of season collapse. In one of the most ill-tempered London derbies you’re likely to see, Mousa Dembélé managed to collect a 6 game ban for an eye gauge on Spanish provocateur Diego Costa. Coming into the 2016/17 season, Dembélé still has 4 of those games to serve so I ask the question, just how big of a miss will he be?
Dembélé arrived at White Hart Lane from Fulham back in 2012 after Spurs activated the £15 million release clause in his contract. Spurs fans were already well aware of his potential after he scored Fulham’s 2010/11 goal of the season against them, running from the halfway line and slotting past Heurelho Gomes. However, despite this, he managed just 5 goals in 62 Premier League games at Craven Cottage.
The Belgian began life at White Hart Lane in the best possible way after he came off the bench to score the equalizing goal against Norwich on debut back in 2012. Over the next few seasons, it’s fair to say that he showed glimpses of talent but never really settled into the side. In the 2014/15 season, the first under Pochettino, Dembélé managed just 10 starts, scoring 1 goal and recording 1 assist. Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb were the preferred duo in the double pivot, with Eriksen, Chadli, and Lamela occupying the 3 places in behind Soldado/Kane. There was little to suggest the Belgian was set to become one of the most valuable players in the Spurs line-up.
Last season this is exactly what happened and the stats are quite incredible. Dembélé quickly established himself alongside Eric Dier in the double pivot, a partnership that was arguably the strongest in the league. With Dembélé in the side Spurs won 51% of their games, compared to 44% without him. Without him, the loss rate was 44%, including both games against Newcastle, Southampton and West Ham. With him, Spurs lost just 2 games, a mere 7% of the time. Without Dembélé in the side, Spurs conceded 13 goals (1.44 per game) and scored 12 (1.33 per game). With him, 57 were scored (1.97 per game) and 22 conceded (0.76 per game).
So how did a man who scored just 3 goals and recorded 1 assist have such a great impact on the most successful (in terms of league placing) Premier League season in Spurs’ history? The first thing to note is just how important Dembélé’s style of play is to the Pochettino system. The system is based around playing high up the pitch and dominating possession. It is, therefore, vital to have players in the side who don’t give away the ball cheaply. With full-backs pressed on, any dispossession in the middle of the pitch and suddenly the threat of a counter attack is very real. There are few better at not giving the ball away cheaply than the 29-year-old Belgian. His ball control, strength and short bursts of acceleration are quite spectacular. It is, therefore, unsurprising that in an interview earlier this year Dele Alli said that Dembélé is the one you want on your side in training because ‘you just can’t tackle him’. He’s not wrong. 83/95 dribbles completed last season gives a success rate of 87.4%. Nobody else who attempted that many even come close to such a success rate. Of all midfielders who attempted over 50 dribbles last season, Yaya Toure has the second best success rate at 70.7%. He also had an incredible pass completion rate. 90.8% in the opponents half and 89.7% in the final third, both team highs. It’s therefore not much of a surprise that he was missed in the games he didn’t play last season, and will be sorely missed in the first 4 games of this.
What then of Victor Wanyama, the man who will most likely replace Dembélé against Everton, Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Stoke? Can he fill the void left? In 30 appearances last season the Kenyan managed more red cards (3) than goals and assists (2 combined), but that’s not the hole Dembélé will be leaving. Wanyama attempted just 39 dribbles last season, completing 24 of them giving a success rate of 61.5%. Not comparable there then. His passing stats don’t match up either, with around 100 less successful passes in the opposition’s half last season, and a success rate of 85.5% (compared to Dembélé’s 90.8%). Some may say this is not a fair comparison because Wanyama’s game is more about winning tackles and protecting the back four, right? Well, interestingly, Wanyama won just 55% of the 129 tackles he attempted last season whilst Dembélé won 71.8% of his 117. I’m not for one second suggesting that Wanyama is a poor purchase. I think he’ll be an excellent addition and provide real competition in that position, but to expect him to fill the Dembélé void is unfair and unrealistic.
I’d love to end this article with a Hollywood-style happy ending and say life without Dembélé will be fine. The fact is he was extraordinary last season, underrated and undervalued perhaps because of his lack of goals and assists but incredibly valuable nonetheless. Wanyama won’t be a worthy replacement, but who would be? There are very few people in world football who can do what he does, so we shouldn’t expect a ready-made replacement to walk through the door. On the bright side, the four games he misses are very winnable, with the visit of Jurgen Klopp’s side being the biggest test. The side will also be full of young players who are one year older and one year wiser, who can hopefully hit the ground running to reduce the impact Dembélé’s absence will have. The 4-1 win at home to Manchester City last season was also done without Dembélé, on that occasion, Dele Alli played deeper and Heung-Min Son took his place further up the pitch. The squad is there to cope, but I for one will be welcoming Mousa Dembélé back with open arms when Sunderland come to visit in September.
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