Mousa Dembele brings a dynamic drive to the two-man pivot, a key factor to Mauricio Pochettino’s system.
Mousa Dembele has been in and out of favour at Spurs recently. A regular for AVB, he found appearances harder to come by when interim Tim took over.
At the weekend, he made his first Premier League start for Mauricio Pochettino, bringing a real drive to the midfield through his positioning, strength, short passing and dribbling.
Our new coach employs two players at the base of his midfield.
One is a holder who screens his centre backs and drops between them to often bring the play out. He is not just a ball winner, but also a distributor, moving passes vertically forward or out to the full backs, sometimes over great distances. That player this season has been Etienne Capoue.
The other is a box-to-box player who has to have great energy to get up and down the pitch. He is charged with covering the left back once he has gone forward, but then tracks the play by moving up behind the trio of advanced midfielders.
This is done to recycle the ball. His job is to keep play moving by working passes in to the more skilled players in and around the box. He also sweeps in-behind the attacking quartet to hem the opposition in if they regain possession.
So far we’ve seen Mauricio Pochettino use Nabil Bentaleb, Lewis Holtby, and now Mousa Dembele in this box-to-box role.
Whilst Nabil Bentaleb has done a decent job playing in here, Mousa Dembele has had a greater effect through his higher positioning. The Algerian is a much more disciplined player, but this sees him sit deeper than the Belgian.
An example of this was against Liverpool. Nabil Bentaleb received the ball 35 times in his hour on pitch, all of which were in the middle third.
Mousa Dembele replaced Bentaleb and we can immediately see how he receives the ball much higher up.
We were chasing the game at the time of Dembele’s introduction, but the Belgian is much more attack minded, looking to get forward.
We can this again see in Sunderland 2 Spurs 2 from the weekend, where he receives a ton of passes at the edge of the oppositions’ final third. This is due to his job to recycle play to pin the opposition in.
Yes we did control this game, but we also dominated against QPR, where Nabil Bentaleb again played very much in the comfort zone of the middle third. Very often in his own half.
Dembele not only positions himself more aggressively, but he also gets the ball moving forward and he does this in two ways. Firstly by passing; secondly through dribbling.
Mauricio Pochettino has his holding player for distribution from the back, which you can read more about in his use of the midfield here. But he has his second player in the pivot to aid with the distribution further forward. This is often through short passes to keep play ticking over.
If we go back to the Liverpool game, we can see how Nabil Bentaleb moves the ball pretty exclusively out to the left, but always from the middle third due to his less aggressive positioning.
Bentaleb did find Emmanuel Adebayor with a long pass in to the penalty area that the Togolese striker lobbed over the bar, which was good to see. Again it came from the middle third of the pitch though.
When Mousa Dembele came on for him, the Belgian played higher and his passing was more in to the attacking third, as well as out to both sides of the pitch.
Dembele is not a defence splitting passer or a lock picking trequartista. Arguably creative passing is the weakest part of his game, but he does play short, neat passes that move the ball up through a level in the defence. These can then put the opposition in trouble as others are then in a position to hurt them.
A few examples from the Sunderland game of typical Dembele passing see him find Emmanuel Adebayor here. The ball takes out two Black Cats midfielders as it is moved up a level to the striker who has John O’Shea pinned and can spin him to get a shot away. Nothing extravagant from Dembele, but effective.
Here he again moves the ball up a level past the two Sunderland screening midfielders to find Christian Eriksen in space. Eriksen can then go to work and finds Danny Rose on the move for a shot.
Again an unspectacular pass, but highly effective. Dembele’s game against Sunderland was full of these short, neat passes in to and inside the final third.
The other way Mousa Dembele advances the ball is through dribbling. This is the best part of his game as his size strength and power all come to the fore. He is often able to use his frame to just roll opponents as he moves away from them.
Dembele has power, but he is also very good with the ball at his feet and almost always seems to go left, his natural side, but opponents still find it difficult to stop him.
So far in the Premier League he has 6 successful dribbles, Nabil Bentaleb by way of comparison has 0, again pointing to aggressiveness on the ball.
The role of the box-to-box player in Mauricio Pochettino’s system also sees him having to regain the ball.
Pushing up behind the attacking midfielders and striker to hem the opposition in does this first of all. If the other team can break the front four’s press, then this man is sweeping behind to slow the opponent down once more.
The box-to-box player also has to be a safety valve though, getting back to help the holding player and the defence.
We can see these two zones of ball recovery from Mousa Dembele in our trip to Sunderland at the weekend.
Dembele has a great engine and can get forward and back. His chase down on Conor Wickham to recover the ball and get the attack moving forward for our first goal was a prime example of this.
By way of comparison, when Nabil Bentaleb has been in this role, his less aggressive and sitting deeper nature has also been prevalent. We saw this despite battering QPR 4-0.
Mousa Dembele drive key to pivot role
After several good substitute appearances, Mousa Dembele got his first Premier League start for Mauricio Pochettino and was highly impressive in the box-to-box role.
The Belgian has faith in his holding player and so positions himself much higher up, knowing he has the engine to recover if needed. This has a positive effect on regaining the ball, especially as he is able to press higher and hem the opposition in.
His passing to move the ball to the more attacking players is neat and often effective. Mauricio Pochettino’s system works by moving the ball up through levels of the opposition’s defence. Dembele can deliver probing passes that often go unnoticed, as they are not spectacular.
Where he does standout is through his dribbling with the ball. The way he rolls off and past opponents may not involve quick jinking movements like Adam Johnson or Eden Hazard, but it is highly effective and very few have the size or strength to stop him doing it.
Mousa Dembele may have drifted out of Tim Sherwood’s plans during his time in charge, but his drive is key to what Mauricio Pochettino requires from his box-to-box player.