With the long awaited transfer of Luka Modric to Real Madrid finally completed last weekend, all eyes turned to who his replacement would be at Spurs. Having witnessed the first two games of the new season it is evident that we were missing the ability of Modric to keep the ball and create from deep. When we were after controlled possession having taken the lead against West Brom, we were crying out for the little magician who was en-route to Madrid.
Wednesday saw the arrival of Moussa Dembele from Fulham. Maybe not the natural replacement for Modric considering when he first arrived on these shores from AZ Alkmaar he came as an attacker. However, he was converted to an attacking midfielder and this season so far he has been playing in a slightly deeper position due to Danny Murphy moving on. Next to Diarra, Dembele has been the creative spark that has seen Fulham hit five past Norwich on the opening weekend and also score two at Old Trafford last week. He has earned rave reviews for these performances and rightly so. Anyone who watched Fulham regularly last season would not have been taken by surprise by his impact so far this season.
Andre Villas Boas has played with a 4231 throughout pre-season and has continued this formation into the season. Both of the league games have seen Sandro and Livermore playing as the 2 defensive midfielders with Bale and Lennon and either VDV or Siggurdson as the more advanced trio just behind Defoe. If Modric was still with Spurs it would be expected that he would be playing alongside Sandro as a deep lying playmaker. Is this a position that we could expect Dembele to pick up?
I have always seen Dembele as more of an attacking midfielder but the stats demonstrate that he could feasibly play the ‘Modric role’. The stats below compare their performances last season and the attributes that they have.
Both players played the same number of games but 3 of Dembele’s appearances were from the bench.
Modric was always very good at keeping possession and keeping the ball moving. He made a significantly higher number of passes than Dembele, but Modric was the heartbeat of the team with all Tottenham’s possession beginning with Modric receiving the ball deep. Dembele played a more advanced role last season so it is not surprising he attempted fewer passes. Dembele’s pass completion rate was slightly higher though.
Finishing last season with an impressive pass completion rate of 89%, Dembele has begun this season even more impressively – completing 96%. In fact, he is only just behind Paul Scholes in passing accuracy in 2nd place (if you take out defenders with higher passing accuracy’s). Dembele has also played a higher proportion of his passes forward compared to Scholes (and backwards for that matter as 72.5% of Scholes’ passes have been sideways!).
Another important aspect of playing this role in a 4231 is the defensive side of the game. Despite having a more defensive player alongside the creator, that position will always have its fair share of defending to do. The below shows that Dembele has more to his game in this respect compared to Modric – attempting (and winning) more 50/50’s, both on the ground and aerially, as well as tackles.
It is also interesting to look at their chalkboards vs Norwich (Dembele this season vs Modric last season). This is something that I saw tweeted by Four Four Two Stats Zone and it is fascinating to see that they are very similar. I have also looked at Dembele’s chalkboard from the same fixture last season to compare his subtle shift in role to what he was performing last season. Against Norwich last season he was more advanced, as part of a front 3 rather than a central midfielder in a midfield 4.
This brings me on nicely to how Dembele’s flexibility and attributes can make him a very versatile member of our squad. As well as playing alongside Sandro as one of the 2 in the 4231 formation, he is easily adaptable to a 433 – AVB’s favoured formation during his time at Porto as well as his ill-fated period in charge of Chelsea. Switching from 4231 to 433 is fluid transition – typically the former while defending while the latter when attacking. He could easily play as one of the midfield 3 or one of the wide positions in a front 3. With time still left before the transfer window closes, his position could be affected by any transfer dealings.
His ability drive forward with the ball will be a useful attribute either in the centre of midfield or as a wide forward. The stats below show that he was more effective than Modric when dribbling with the ball. However, the fact that he attempted 100 crosses less than Modric is indicative that his dribbling wasn’t associated with wing play. He had more penetration when taking the ball through the centre, driving at teams.
It is widely reported that a deal for Joao Moutinho may still be completed. If this is the case, Moutinho would be a more like for like Modric replacement which could see him playing the deeper role with Dembele more advanced. Additionally, a potential midfield 3 in a 433 of Sandro, Dembele and Moutinho is a pretty mouthwatering prospect.
One thing that is clear is that AVB is building a squad based on flexibility. With a number of midfield players that can play in a variety of positions, it will be possible to tweak the line-up depending on opposition/circumstance.
One thing that Harry Redknapp was often criticised for was his lack of tactical awareness. This is something that Villas Boas has in abundance so it will be interesting to see how he sets his team up, once the transfer deadline has passed.
It may be misleading to compare Dembele to Modric as they are completely different players, but Dembele is an exceptional player in his own right. One of the criticisms that a number of Spurs fans had of Modric was that he did not get enough goals/assists. If they are expecting Dembele to contribute more in this area then they are likely to be disappointed as he managed even fewer. I have always maintained though that goals and assists aren’t necessarily the currency that deep lying playmakers should be judged on.
Dembele contributed significantly to giving Norwich a torrid time on the opening day of the season, fingers crossed he can do it again on his Spurs debut.
All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.com – Subscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.