By Ewan Roberts at White Hart Lane
On Saturday afternoon, Tottenham drew 0-0 at home in the league for the first time since March 19 2011, ending a run of 34 matches at White Hart Lane without a goalless stalemate. Carving out few clear-cut chances and repelled with relative comfort, Spurs became the ninth team to fail to score against Stoke this season.
The Potters, boasting the league’s meanest defence, have become a barometer test of a side’s attacking ability, a raw examination of their creative talents and limitations. Sitting deep in organised, regimented numbers, Tony Pulis’ solid and savage set-up invites pressure, goading the opposition to try and break them down.
Such a philosophy reveals the worth of a side’s playmaker(s), tempting them to find a means to unlock the defence; but for Tottenham it revealed a damning truth: they have no playmaker.
In the wake of the departure of deep-lying conductor Luka Modric and attacking midfielder Rafael van der Vaart, Spurs have become reliant on £15 million summer signing Mousa Dembele – the player bought to replace the north London side’s two most imaginative players.
But in a creative capacity, the Belgian is almost non-existent. Though graceful when dribbling with the ball and extremely competitive off it, the former Fulham striker-cum-midfielder lacks the guile and vision required to break through a defence as watertight as Stoke’s.
Dembele has played just 18 key passes this season, significantly fewer than the league’s benchmark for creativity, David Silva (45). Even within the Tottenham squad, a defender, Kyle Walker, has managed more key passes (30) than the Belgian.
Since scoring on his debut against Norwich almost four months ago, Dembele has failed to hit the back of the net in his subsequent 14 games in all competitions, and provided just three league assists.
Against Stoke’s deep defence he was particularly impotent, rarely breaching the first bank of four and struggling to find space in a congested final third, while his slaloming runs were negated by a lack of space to drive into. In order to penetrate the box, Spurs needed a player capable of thinking outside it, but Dembele offered no vision or ingenuity.
That is not to say Dembele is a poor player, quite the opposite; but his strengths lie elsewhere and he desperately needs creative assistance. It is a problem that can’t be solved through coaching, but must be addressed in the January transfer window. Tottenham have no midfield magicians, no final-third executioners, no pass-masters, no game changers in the middle of the pitch, so must scour the market in order to find some.
This void of creativity and artisanship is a problem that manager Andre Villas-Boas recognises. The Portuguese has prioritised the signing of Joao Moutinho, while Isco and Willian are reportedly high on his wishlist.
An intelligent, cunning and probing passer, Moutinho would compensate for Dembele’s limitations and provide an eye-of-the-needle-threading threat from deep (and complete a midfield trio that would have everything: pace and technique, power and vision, subtlety and aggression), while Isco and Willian offer more final-third-orientated cunning and explosiveness.
In the absence of such players, Dembele – and the entire Spurs side – have been hindered by Villas-Boas’ apparent obligation to field both the club’s highest earner (and biggest diva), Emmanuel Adebayor, and the team’s undroppable top scorer, Jermain Defoe.
Playing both has necessitated a shift to a 4-4-2 formation, which has shackled Dembele (and regularly left him and Brazilian destroyer Sandro outnumbered in midfield), while exaggerating the responsibility on him to defend.
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Deploying two out-and-out wingers, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, means there’s little inward movement or threat, while Tottenham have become hugely cross-heavy. Such a style suited neither Adebayor nor Defoe against Stoke, with Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross relishing the opportunity to swat away the numerous crosses floated into the box.
The strike partnership itself has struggled to ignite. In the seven league matches and 326 minutes they’ve spent together on the pitch, they’ve recorded no assists and just one goal. Defoe, so prolific when given a lone role, has yet to net alongside his Togolese team-mate. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Villas-Boas must choose one or the other.
Of course it must be noted that Stoke are a particularly tough nut to crack. At a time when defences have appeared to be out of fashion, non-existent even, Stoke have made defending an art form again, albeit an often brutal and uncompromising masterpiece; imagine Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel with a paint roller.
Of the teams currently sitting in the top six, only league leaders Manchester United managed to pick up three points against the Potters, or even score more than one goal. Pulis’ refreshingly frugal outlook has seen Stoke concede a mere 13 goals and keep a clean sheet in 50 per cent of their matches.
But Spurs themselves look a stronger defensive unit, and have recorded three clean sheets in their last four games. A solid foundation has been established by Villas-Boas, there’s a robustness to the side, and now Tottenham must utilise the upcoming window in order to solve their creative deficiencies and mount an assault in the increasingly heated battle for Champions League football.
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