Tottenham: Lewis Cook is the solution to the Dembele problem

With Mousa Dembele in the twilight of his career at Spurs, Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook could well be the best available replacement.

by Jon Mackenzie

(Photo credit: Thechampionshipguru)

It must be hard being a Spurs fan. 

Imagine supporting a club that has a counter-cultural wage structure; that finds value by buying from more backwater markets around the world, an approach which either brings in flops (Remember Soldado? Janssen? Llorente?) or creates heroes who could be snapped up at any time because of said counter-cultural wage structure; that does its transfer budget late in the window.

As things stand, Spurs remain the only team in the so-called ‘top six’ of the Premier League who are yet to bring in reinforcements over the summer.

Whilst this would normally be disconcerting for any fan of any club, there are a number of extenuating circumstances that make this situation all the more worrying for Spurs fans. On the one hand, does it tell them something about the club’s transfer budget in the light of their stadium rebuild? 

REUTERS/Henry Romero
 

On the other hand, there are various internal problems within the squad that will not simply be ameliorated by a patient outlook: the World Cup has left Mauricio Pochettino with a decimated squad with which to pick from for the opening few games of the season. And then there is the issue of Mousa Dembele.

Given the fact that the Belgian midfielder is deep into the twilight period of his career, his decline has left the Spurs team with something of a soft underbelly. Add to this the absence of Victor Wanyama through a suspected recurrence of last season’s cruciate knee ligament injury and some pundits have been suggesting the only solution is a modified formation going into the new season.

When the news broke on Wednesday night that Spurs were considering tabling a £30 million bid for Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook, then, it seemed as though a solution to the Dembele problem might be on the cards. But how well would the former Leeds United midfielder fill the gap left by the Belgian?

What are Spurs looking for in a Dembele replacement?

At the end of last season, Nathan Clark ran a three-part series on RealSport looking at how you might go about replacing Mousa Dembele (See Part I, Part II and Part III). 

In discussing the methodology behind this replacement, he stated:

At his peak, Dembele’s strengths were varied and vast but his most outstanding attribute would have to be his dribbling. This allowed him both to receive the ball under pressure and carry it up the pitch.

Taking this as a base metric, Clark looked at the dribble statistics from across Europe last season (from before the 9th of January 2018). However, Lewis Cook didn’t show up particularly favourably compared to Mousa Dembele and so didn’t show up in Clark’s resulting shortlist.

Graphic from Danyal Gulbas

As the graphic from Danyal Gulbas shows, Cook is slightly below the average number of attempted dribbles, although this could be due to the way that Bournemouth approach their matches tactically.

There is, though, the indication that his dribble success rate (around 76% at this point) is healthy and could be pushed to approach the sort of level that Dembele is at. It is hardly surprising that Clark plumped for Mario Lemina (amongst others) in the end.

Looking at the dribble statistics by the end of the season, Cook is still off the pace of both Dembele and Lemina.

Stats from WhoScored.com
 

Comparing central midfielders in the Premier League with more than ten appearances, Cook shows up in fifth when sorting per successful dribbles. His dribble success rate is still below Dembele’s (82%) and Lemina’s (89%) but, at a respectable 73%, he comes in at the same rate as Paul Pogba.

Adding another factor into the mix

However, Mousa Dembele is not simply useful to Tottenham because of his ability to break a press through dribbling. As Played Off The Park showed, Mousa Dembele is also an impressive vertical passer of the ball.

By developing a better model for determining vertical passes (that is, passes that, broadly speaking, advance the ball into more productive areas), Played Off The Park combined the data for attempted vertical passes with completed take-ons for players in the top 4 European leagues.

Graph from www.playedoffthepark.co.uk
 

As you can see from the yellow arrow, Mousa Dembele differentiates himself from the rest of the pack. He is not quite as remarkable a central midfielder by these metrics as Liverpool’s Naby Keita or the Manchester City duo of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, of course. But he is still a remarkably productive performer by these statistics. (NB. Neither of these metrics are judged in terms of success. For more creative players, such as Silva and De Bruyne, their relative success rates would be noticeably different to Dembele’s.)

Most interestingly for us, though, is the fact that Lewis Cook mirrors Dembele’s profile almost exactly.

Graph from www.playedoffthepark.co.uk 
 

In fact, if you remove players over the age of 24, you can see that Lewis Cook comes into his own. Once again, the outlier Naby Keita is far and away the notable exception to the rule. But Cook is up there with the best of the rest.

The solution?

It is easy to forget that Lewis Cook is still only 21 years old. 

Comparing his statistical profile with Mousa Dembele’s over the last season, it is clear that there is still some improvement to be made, particularly in terms of his dribble success. 

However, brought into the Tottenham set-up and allowed the chance to develop under Mauricio Pochettino, don’t be surprised if the England under-21 captain thrives at the club.

At £30 million, Lewis Cook could prove to be one of the signings of the window if it goes through.

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Jon Mackenzie

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