Dembele drive key to pivot role

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.

Pochettino’s pivot

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.

Higher positioning

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.


Nabil Bentaleb passes received against Liverpool.

Mousa Dembele replaced Bentaleb and we can immediately see how he receives the ball much higher up.


Mousa Dembele passes received against Liverpool.

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.


Mousa Dembele passes received against Sunderland.

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.


Nabil Bentaleb passes received against QPR.

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.

Aggressive passing

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.


Nabil Bentaleb passes played, Spurs vs Liverpool.

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.


Mousa Dembele passes played, Spurs vs Liverpool.

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.


Dembele moves the ball up a level to Adebayor.

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.


Dembele finds Eriksen.

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.


Mousa Dembele passes played against Sunderland.


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.


Mousa Dembele ball recoveries against Sunderland.

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.


Nabil Bentaleb ball recoveries against QPR.

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.

If you enjoyed this post, please share:


9 Responses to Dembele drive key to pivot role

  1. Paulo 17th September 2014 at 5:29 pm #

    Hello! Good stuff!

    I would tend to agree that Dembele is our stongest player for that role. If Bentelab is back up i wonder where it leaves Paulinho…?

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 17th September 2014 at 5:37 pm #

      Hello Paulo! Good question. So far Poch has used Paulinho higher up in the number ten position due to his charging runs in to the box – which we saw against Limassol. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him used in there again, but also in this role as an alternative/rest/rotation option with Dembele.

  2. Scorpio 17th September 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    I agree with the comparison between Dembele and Bentaleb. Bentaleb is young and needs time to develop his game. I hope Poch can get more out of Dembele who I think is working well below his potential. I would have Dembele practicing his shooting because he has an awesome shot. Just wish he could shoot on target more often. Demebele should also use his ability to drive into the penalty box more often.

    Paulinho’s best position is playing further forward breaking into the box. He is not effective screening the back four. He often fails to put in an effective tackle. Time will tell if he has the right attitude to play the Poch high pressing game.

    The central defensive pair is Spurs weakest position currently. The sooner we can settle on the best pair the better. Look how well Aston Villa defended against Liverpool. Last season their defence had more holes than a sieve.

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 18th September 2014 at 1:56 pm #

      The jury is out on Paulinho at the minute and he seems the kind of player bought for AVB’s system that doesn’t quite have a proper home in Pochettino’s. I think he could do okay playing off a striker, but the problem is i wouldn’t want to drop one of Lamela/Eriksen/Chadli as i like they way they dovetail behind the centre forward currently.

      You are right about the central defensive duo, i’m looking forward to seeing how Fazio copes with the speed of the Premier League.

  3. Paulo 17th September 2014 at 8:46 pm #

    Dembele reminds me of Huddlestone when it comes to shooting – always produces amazing shots which rarely go in! As for the central defence it’ll be interesting to see who establishes themselves as the no.1 pairing:
    Vertoghen – fans favourite and highly rated
    Fazio – new 10m signing
    Kaboul – new club captain
    Chiriches – last seasons 10m signing…..

    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 18th September 2014 at 1:58 pm #

      Good comparison between Dembele and Hudd’s shots. Clean and crisply hit, yet rarely seem to find the back of the net!

      I can’t see past Fazio and Vertonghen in a few months time once everything is settled down, but Chiriches overplaying on the ball is worrying me right now!

  4. YouShubes 18th September 2014 at 9:32 am #

    For me while he may not have the most creative passing, Dembele can shoot. I think if he took more chances with his shooting, that would open more opportunities to dribble, as defender would have to close him down.


    • Spurs Fanatic - Mark 18th September 2014 at 2:04 pm #

      That would seem to be the general thought that if you have a player that can both dribble and shoot, it will cause defenders to have to make a choice as to what to do compared to knowing that they only have one thing in their locker – either shooting or dribbling.

      For me, as Paulo says, Dembele has a good shot but it rarely goes in. He’s never been a good goalscorer anywhere other than in the Eredivise, but defenders always seem to play him for the dribble, but his body is so big he can just roll off them. Even if he did shoot more often, i still think defenders would play him to dribble, as that is his best skill and what he does most often. Given his record i’d be hapy as an opponent if he did take more shots as that would take him off the better part of his game.