Mousa Dembele is excelling as a destructive number ten in Mauricio Pochettino’s quest to loosen up deep-lying opponents.
Mousa Dembele has drifted in and out of the team this season, as Mauricio Pochettino occasionally gave him a run out at the base of our midfield. The Belgian was in direct competition with Ryan Mason and with the youngster making such an impact, Dembele had to be content with a back-up role.
Now, all that has changed. With rumours that he was on his way out of the exit door, Dembele has had a new lease of life as a number ten. Christian Eriksen was filling the position, but teams stifling our narrow formation by packing the centre often crowded out the Dane. Dembele’s re-incarnation in a role he started out his career playing many years ago in Holland, has brought power and drive to the position to loosen opposition teams up.
The first thing Mousa Dembele has brought to the role is his strength and ability to close opposition players down. This forces turnovers by either making them clear long downfield or to strip them of the ball as he shrugs them off it.
In our Capital One Cup semi-final against Sheffield United, he was instrumental in closing down from the front. Dembele’s bigger size and frame means that he is equal in stature to many centre backs than a traditional number ten. Here he forces a long clearance downfield as he closes quickly, leaving few options.
But he is also a serious threat to close and muscle anyone who delays off the ball. Just as he does here to start a break that ends with a Harry Kane shot.
Dembele’s ability to regain the ball, that we’ve often seen when he has played deeper in the midfield, is much more destructive when deployed further up the pitch. It can catch the opposition off-guard, and then their formation off-balance, in order to start quick counters.
Mousa Dembele is renowned for his dribbling ability wherever he is on the park. The Belgian uses his sizeable frame and strength to role off opponents, gliding past them with what seems like effortless ease.
Deeper in the formation, this can see him move the ball out of danger. When deployed further up the field, Dembele can execute his dribble-drives with much more devastating effect.
We saw this against Sheffield United as the Belgian powered his way up the park here to feed Harry Kane in for a shot that went just past the post.
Against West Brom at the weekend, Dembele’s dribbles created our opening two goals. The first saw him blow by Claudio Yacob before being fouled to set up Christian Eriksen’s free kick.
On our second goal, he drove past Saido Berahino to get in-behind the West Brom midfield once more.
Before laying the ball off to Harry Kane to fire us in to a 2-0 lead with a wicked drive past Ben Foster at his near post.
This second goal against West Brom highlighted Mousa Dembele as a player perfectly.
He is a powerful driver with the ball, but isn’t the lock-picking passer that a traditional number ten is. However, he doesn’t need to be. When motoring past opponents, he draws other defenders towards him, which frees up team mates. His lay-offs to the open man can then be equally effective as any defence splitting through pass.
And that’s what Dembele as a destructive number ten does. His presence, and the fact that defences have to get up on him to stop his dribbles, allows others to drift in to the middle and flourish. Dembele sucks players towards him and then his layoffs move the ball to the open man before the defence can rotate back in to position. This allows players like Eriksen to move in to the middle unmarked, rather than having their starting position in the centre and operating in the initial congestion.
Mousa Dembele the destructive number 10
Having a power player rather than a typical lock-picking trequartista at the number ten position has really paid dividends for Mauricio Pochettino so far.
Having experimented with a few tactics, including the long ball game we saw in the 1st leg with Sheffield United, this may well be his answer to unlocking teams that sit deep.
The book on how to play us has traditionally read that you sit off, play on the counter and congest the centre. Having a physically strong, dribble and dish power player operating further up the field may well be his answer to solving this conundrum.