Tottenham Hotspur face an incredibly important summer as they seek to build upon the unexpected developmental success of the past season.
Adding intelligently to an already-solid team is difficult, as one has to be able to discern between necessary quality additions and big names at exorbitant prices. Determining the areas in which Tottenham need to strengthen is key, and one of the most important spots is in midfield. Midfield is a broad term, so specifically defensive midfield is the area in which Spurs’ success may very well ride upon going into the future.
In the 2015/16 season, we saw some lilywhite midfielders have fantastic years, the unsung hero of the side being Mousa Dembélé; a player who seemed to live finally up to the lofty expectations that his physique promises.
Built like a building, the Belgian became the perfect partner to Eric Dier in the 4-2-3-1 formation. The fallacy within modern iterations of 4-2-3-1 formations is that often they’re not used as intended or they give a false representation of success because of the over-performance of one midfielder within the “2” of the 4-2-3-1.
Jose Mourinho used this formation in his most recent title-winning season at Chelsea, yet the shape on the field didn’t reflect what was on paper. The lineup usually featured Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas next to each other in the “2”, when Fabregas would do little to no defensive work. Matic had an absolute blinder of a season that year, and just like N’Golo Kanté this year, covered for the defensive shortcomings of another player by performing the work of two.
It’s this sort of unsustainable performance that causes teams to think that there isn’t need to strengthen in certain areas come summer time. Spurs don’t have this problem. Dier and Dembélé form a realistic and sustainable partnership as two defensive midfielders who each have a particular set of duties, the issue that besets Spurs is finding someone who can fill in for Dembélé going forward.
Dembélé is a tremendous asset for Spurs going forward because of one primary attribute; his ability to retain the ball. The 6’1, 185 pound giant of a midfielder, had an excellent season because of his ability to retain possession when under immense pressure just outside the opposition’s box. Holding possession in this critical area allowed for the inclusion of the width created by players like Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, and also drew players away from more creative outlets like Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen. Dembélé may not have lit up the league with goals or assists, but one could argue he played a far greater role than many other players this past season.
There is a cloud on the horizon, however.
Dembélé had a peak form season at the age in which many have agreed that one should be reaching the peak of their athletic powers, yet he’s never had a season like it before. The past year could simply be a blip on the radar of an otherwise promising but never entirely fulfilled career. Also, as stated before, the athletic peak is 28. While it’s certainly not old age, it’s not a young one either. Building around someone at Dembele’s age would be risky consider one could only optimistically assume that the player has two years of guaranteed peak left, with a gradual to dramatic decline anywhere before or right after 30.
If Tottenham are to elevate themselves as a club in these shifting Premier League times, then they need to have a contingency plan. Spurs were often found lacking without this key offensive element in their line-up, which is why they exited a “good” year with no trophies. Moving forward, the North London club should go out and grab a young player who has shown similar attributes to be a part of their individual game or shift towards an all actions pressing midfield. Dembélé offered a healthy balance of both types of roles, but the over-reliance on the performance of one player is something that will hamper any team, let alone one trying to rid itself of a narrative of chronic underachievement.