Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge
This will be my seventeenth article for RealSport and the vast majority of them will have had Mousa Dembele as a central theme. You might have thought this summer that this was finally coming to an end but no.
When talking Tottenham, it’s hard to avoid him. There is no player more crucial to Tottenham’s form. As a result there is no player who has more influence over Pochettino’s tactical decisions and the club’s squad building (or maintaining).
Switching things up
Last time I wrote, we had a bit of deep dive on the growing belief among Spurs fans that Pochettino may switch to a 4-1-4-1 this season in order to transition into a post-Dembele world.
That exact shape has yet to appear but we have at least seen the use of a three-man midfield to compensate.Firstly, a very Didier Deschamps’ France-esque 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid against Newcastle that saw Dele Alli operate in Blaise Matuidi’s rather unique centre-mid/left-wing role.
Against Fulham, a more traditional shape appeared: a 3-5-2 with a clear Gareth Southgate’s England influence.
It’s safe to assume Mauricio Pochettino enjoyed sitting down and watching the World Cup with a notepad in hand this summer.
Saving the day
Both games followed a similar pattern: Spurs start strong against an opposition who put 11 men behind the ball in attempt to slow the game down.
Later, both Newcastle and Fulham came out in the second half pressing Tottenham higher up the pitch, causing Spurs’ build-up issues and creating chances.
In the third and final act, Spurs bring Dembele on, establishing control by doing so. In both cases, they see the game out to a victory.
Coming onto the pitch late Mousa Dembele is able to happily waive opposition pressure and slow the tempo of the game down such that Tottenham can begin to exert their authority on the game.
It’s not the deterioration of Dembele’s technical skills or decision making that has been the cause of Tottenham’s concern over the last two years but his physical capacity to perform them. So far we’ve seen the Belgian able to give Spurs 30-minute bursts of his fit self to very positive results.
Now, this is only two games in and we could be getting ahead of ourselves.
Perhaps Pochettino is simply building Dembele’s fitness up with the intention of him starting games again in the near future. Perhaps the club are simply keeping him warm and proving him in-injured ahead of a transfer abroad.
But maybe, just maybe, Mousa Dembele is a 30-minutes-a-week footballer and has become a very effective midfield super-sub.
If that is the plan though, there are tactical weaknesses to it.
It’s unlikely that both Slavisa Jokanovic and Rafael Benitez waited 45 minutes before choosing to press Tottenham high out of tactical naivety.
More likely they felt their teams only had the energy to do so for a certain period of time and so waited until later in the game so as not to leave themselves exhausted and, thus, vulnerable.
Eventually, teams will catch on to Pochettino’s subbing pattern and Tottenham only being vulnerable to pressure while the Belgian is off the pitch.
This will lead to teams taking a risk and starting at an unsustainable high tempo, hoping to give themselves lead they can later hold onto with some deep and dogged defending.
Maybe then Pochettino would be bold enough to start Dembele with the intention of bringing him off at half-time. Teams will catch on once again and return to the previous pressing pattern.
Still, these tactical trends can take some time. If Spurs can drag this cat-and-mouse tactics game out until the January transfer window opens they may well get another half-season of Mousa Dembele’s – and therefore Tottenham’s – very best.