By Ewan Roberts
Three times now Andre Villas-Boas has prowled the technical area at White Hart Lane, valiantly resisting the urge to adopt his much ridiculed touchline squat, and three times he has watched his side fail to win. Lacking a consistent goal threat and largely devoid of penetration, Tottenham must turn to Mousa Dembele to unlock the opposition defences and their own goalscoring potential.
Against Lazio, Spurs failed to score at home for the first time in over a year. The result is Tottenham’s third draw at home this season, and the Lilywhites have yet to score more than once on their own turf. It’s a curious situation for a fanbase that expects free-flowing football, and a manager who has generally provided it in the past.
As such, a great deal of responsibility falls on the shoulders of their Belgian playmaker. The converted midfielder, still learning the role that has been thrust upon him, is tasked with the unenviable assignment of replacing both Rafael van der Vaart - Spurs’ go-to final third executioner - and Luka Modric - the midfield metronome.
Currently Dembele is straddling a line between sitting deep and orchestrating possession, and breaking forward in support of the attack. But, to borrow an analogy from Johan Cruyff, it is impossible to cook the meal, serve it, and eat it - a different player must take ownership of each phase.
The burden of creativity, of scoring and creating goals, needs to be shared amongst more players thereby allowing the Belgian to play with greater freedom, to focus on repositioning his team and initiating attacks from deep. Blessed with great vision and composure on the ball, Dembele played 66 successful passes against Lazio with an 89 per cent accuracy rate, but, like the Croatian he has succeeded, Dembele carries little goal threat, scoring and assisting just twice last season.
So Villas-Boas faces a perplexing problem. Every minute that passes without Spurs making a breakthrough, the more blurred and diluted Dembele’s role becomes; the more he seeks to finish moves, the less time he spends starting them.
Villas-Boas’ side, albeit more structured and methodical in their approach play now than under Harry Redknapp, do not score freely. Nor do they possess the goal threat and final third cutting edge that was so prevalent in his Porto team. That is partly due to the differing styles of the sides' respective wingers.
Spurs’ widemen are traditionally British in their playing styles. Both retain width and are at their most explosive when attacking down the outside and into space, but neither are adept at cutting infield and are significantly less dangerous and easier to contain when inverted.
Porto’s wing-forwards from their hugely successful 2010-11 campaign, on the other hand, naturally drifted inside onto their stronger feet, joining the attack. Hulk outscored Falcao in the league, hitting the back of the net 23 times in 26 games, while Silvestre Varela chipped in with a further dozen goals. Those are tallies Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale cannot hope to emulate.
And so the emphasis falls on new summer signings Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson to provide the goals and assists Tottenham require, and to support a lone frontman. Dempsey was the joint-fourth highest scorer in the league last season, alongside Emmanuel Adebayor, with 17 goals, while Sigurdsson netted every 213 minutes during his time on loan at Swansea.
|15/8||Mousa Dembele is 15/8 to score anytime against QPR with bet365
But if Spurs are lacking attacking potency, they are gaining defensive solidity. Regularly reckless and cavalier under Redknapp, Spurs were often open and frequently exposed. But Villas-Boas’ possession-first philosophy, mixed with better organisation in the backline, limited Lazio to just one shot on goal, and not a single effort on target. Dembele, the brutish artisan, has added steel, power and tenacity in front of the back four as well as flair and inventiveness.
This is a new Tottenham: taller, stronger, more physically imposing. There are shades of Joachim Low’s German national team about AVB’s Spurs, blending artistry and guile with power and height. Both sides even have converted attackers coordinating their midfields from deep (Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dembele).
And with a new physical presence brings a new threat: set-pieces. Spurs fans could count on one hand the number of goals they’ve scored directly from set-plays over the last few seasons, but under Villas-Boas they look a real menace. Last night, Steven Caulker appeared to have given Spurs the lead after heading in Bale’s corner, but he was harshly adjudged to have pushed Stefano Mauri and the goal was ruled out.
Tottenham’s DNA is changing, their identity is being altered and adjusted, but with that transformation has come a certain apprehensiveness and disjointedness in the final third as the players have sought to adapt to new team-mates, new ideas and a new style. But if Spurs can get the best out of Dembele, then the Belgian can get the best out of Spurs.
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