With Tim Sherwood looking to bring some of his youth team charges through in to the first team, Nabil Bentaleb has been the pioneer.
He made his debut appearance away at Southampton, but after coming on against Man Utd, he received his first start at Arsenal. Saturday saw him make his Premier League bow as a starter at home to Crystal Palace.
So, how has Nabil Bentaleb faired in his two starts?
The role of Nabil Bentaleb
As looked at in a recent post on the system of Tim Sherwood, the new coach looks to play a double 6 in the centre of midfield. This sees him pairing two more box-to-box players in here as opposed to the traditional holder and a playmaker combination.
Athletic players are needed, as their role is to get up and down the field. They have to help out defensively, but also squeeze up going forward to act as a safety valve to keep the ball in the final third. This is to stop the opposition getting out easily once they have navigated past our front players. It also helps recycle the ball to keep it in the opponents final third.
When we have possession, their role is to keep it moving from side to side in order to work crossing situations. This keeps the tempo up and also moves the point of attack.
The pair don’t need to be players of ‘killer passes’ as they are aided by a playmaker to do this. He drifts inside from his starting position on the left to get this additional body and creativity in to the centre of the park, whilst it also avoids being outnumbered 3v2 in the middle.
Nabil Bentaleb with us in possession
When we’ve had possession of the ball, Nabil Bentaleb has been neat and tidy in his role in order to keep the play ticking over. Overall, his movement of the ball has been good.
Being at the heart of a midfield pairing which is tasked with them keeping the tempo ticking over, he’s touched the ball more than any other Spurs player in his two starts.
Against Palace he was effective at taking the ball from the centre backs before moving it to the wide players (1). Once possession had moved in to the final third (2), he was always available to take a pass back inside or across the formation.
He doesn’t get up in to the box, as his role is to keep the attack moving and the defence hemmed in without congesting the penalty area for the strikers. That is why both his shots came from range after joining later in the attack.
He received the most passes naturally from his partner, Moussa Dembele. But after that, it was the wide players, as they recycled possession back across the formation.
This style of ‘get it, give it’ passing saw him complete 93% of his 107 passes against Palace, whilst he also made 93% of his team leading 82 against Arsenal.
His passing mimics how he receives it. In his on half he moves it back to his centre backs. In the opposition half, he moves the ball square across the park, then on more of a diagonal in order to shift it to the wide players.
Note how when he goes for aggressive vertical passes up the field they often fail to find their target. This is not really Bentaleb’s role, as Christian Eriksen drifts inside to offer the ‘killer balls’ and creativity.
Some have criticised Bentaleb for playing too many ‘square balls,’ but that’s his job in this set up. If we look at just his forward passes we can see how they are across the formation or to move the ball up a level to either a front or wide man. All the passes which are picked off are aggressive vertical ones.
Again, his top passing targets are the same as where he receives the ball, as he finds his partner Moussa Dembele square and Lennon and Rose out wide.
Nabil Bentaleb out of possession
When we lose possession of the ball, Nabil Bentaleb has two roles. If the ball is in the final third, then either he or Dembele, whoever is furthest forward, is tasked with trying to hem it in – see Dembele’s play on the second goal against Crystal Palace. Lennon plays a loose pass and then Dembele goes straight after the ball to win it back, so as to keep Palace from getting out.
If the opposition are able to navigate this press, then both Bentaleb and Dembele are tasked with getting back in order to shield their defence.
Against Palace, we can see these two zones from where Nabil Bentaleb did a good job of recovering the ball.
Where this part of Tim Sherwood’s system does cause problems, is that it leaves space open between the lines. This is due to the sheer amount of ground the two central players have to cover.
It’s happened whether Bentaleb has been playing or not – as we saw in Southampton 2 Spurs 3 where Adam Lallana exploited this space behind Erisken and Dembele.
Nabil Bentaleb, along with Moussa Dembele, has also been a victim to opponents getting between the lines in his two starts.
In Arsenal 2 Spurs 0 at the Emirates, this happened on countless occasions as Walcott, Gnabry and Cazorla got in behind them.
There was a large space between the central midfield duo and their centre backs, as we can see from their average positions on WhoScored.com.
In Spurs 2 Crystal Palace 0 at the weekend, we dominated possession, but the gap was still there.
The Eagles took less advantage of it than Arsenal, but they still created some chances in the first half.
Nabil Bentaleb is doing a decent job when we’re not in possession, but the system leaves little room for error by playing two box-to-box midfielders. This has often seen him out of position. He has too much ground to cover against opponents playing with three central players and only having one running mate in Dembele.
Nabil Bentaleb overall
Overall, Nabil Bentaleb is doing what’s being asked of him. Critics cite his sideways safe passing, but that is what is required of his role to keep moving the ball out to the wide players. This invariably means the ball going across the formation.
Defensively he has been out of position at times. He isn’t helped by the system and the amount of work he and Dembele are asked to get through. This has left space between the lines, which the better teams will exploit.
With experience, better positional sense will come. Right now, he is better off stating at home to teams like Crystal Palace than away to a top four team such as Arsenal.