Totalling just two points from the opening three games of the season (with both points earned in disappointing home draws), the press seemed all too willing to put Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villa Boas under increasing scrutiny. Fleet Street favourite Harry Redknapp had been given the boot and replaced by AVB, and the press couldn’t wait for the Portuguese to fail.
After the international break Spurs came back (much as they did last season) to go on a winning run, starting with the away fixture at Reading, and including a first away win over Manchester United in 23 years. Even on the morning of the trip to Old Trafford the headlines in one national newspaper read “SPURS IN TURMOIL!!”. However, a stunning first-half performance, in which Spurs outplayed and outfought United, paved the way for a gritty display in the second half to seal the full three points. AVB’s revolution had started to look like it was beginning to take shape.
On the back of the victory at Old Trafford, a convincing win at home for Spurs against Aston Villa on Sunday ensured that the White Hart Lane boo boys, so vociferous during the previous home games, were nowhere to be seen.
It was always going to take time for AVB’s Spurs team to take shape. Losing key players during the transfer window didn’t help matters. The sale of Luka Modric (if you have read any of my previous articles on this site you will know that I am a massive fan of his) and Van Der Vaart ripped the creativity from the team and meant that AVB had no choice but to set up his team differently to the way we were used to under Redknapp. Moreover, a significant number of players that had helped to take the club to a fourth-place finish last season have not been available to Villas Boas for one reason or another. Under circumstances such as these, a sluggish start wasn’t wholly unexpected.
So what has been the driving force behind the upturn in fortunes? For me there are a number of factors: the ease with which Vertonghen has filled in at left back (no surprise, as this is where he starts for the Belgian national team); Caulker fitting in well alongside the impressive Gallas and looking he has played in this team for years; and Defoe displaying the potential to play as the clinical lone striker that few thought he was capable of becoming.
The biggest plus point for me, however, have been the performances of the dynamic duo in midfield – the excellent pairing of Sandro and Mousa Dembele. I recently wrote an article questioning whether Dembele could be more than just a replacement for Modric. The fact that a number of fans aren’t missing the Croation suggests that Dembele is more than capable of filling the little magician’s boots.
Dembele has an ability to keep hold of the ball, link play, and drive directly at opponents. He is a much more direct player than Modric was and also has the defensive attributes to win back possession. Together with Sandro he offers more protection to the back four and extra aggression in the middle of the park. A recent article on whoscored.com shows that Sandro and Dembele won possession a very impressive 91 times – more than any other partnership in the Premier League this season.
Looking at both players’ stats provides an indication of how effective they have been as a pairing to date.
The data below shows how effective Sandro is at keeping the play simple and finding a teammate in his own half, often winning or intercepting the ball before safely laying it off. This is emphasised by his achievement of a 100% pass-completion rate in his own half on three occasions. He also has an overall pass completion rate of 93% in his own half from 152 attempted passes. Sandro isn’t as effective in terms of passing when he’s higher up the pitch. He has a 79% accuracy in the opponents’ half (165 attempted) and this drops to 77% when in the final third (62 attempted).
Dembele is also a very effective passer of the ball. He isn’t quite so accurate in his own half but still manages a very impressive 90% completion rate. In the opposition half and final third, however, he is much more accurate than Sandro, successfully making 87% of his passes in both zones (although playing two fewer games this season means that this statistic is taken from a smaller sample size). Dembele was accurate with all four of his final-third passes against United, and against Villa he enjoyed a 92% accuracy in both his own and the opposition half, and a very impressive 95% in the final third (from 19 passes attempted).
Sandro, as the more defensive player of the duo, has won possession in midfield 33 times, with an impressive 13 of them at home to Villa last Sunday. He has also demonstrated effective defensive positioning, with 23 interceptions so far this season.
Dembele too has shown the defensive side of his game and, as well as retaining the ball well, he has demonstrated an ability to win the ball back, doing so 21 times in midfield, while successfully making ten interceptions.
Finally, the dashboard of each player for the game against Manchester United reveals the influence of the Spurs midfield pairing, especially in terms of winning possession and attacking flair during the first half (Bale’s goal was a result of Sandro winning the ball on the edge of his own area before feeding Dembele, who was able to drive forward and release the perfect pass for Bale) and the determination and defensive qualities they demonstrated in the second half.
Next Page: Player dashboards for Dembele and Sandro Vs Manchester United