Friday, November 16, 2012

Dempsey not suited for center attacking midfield role in Spurs' 4-2-3-1

In the lead up to tomorrow's crucial North London derby, Andre Villas-Boas will certainly be concerned about his side's recent inability to effectively transition the ball forward through the middle of the pitch since the injury to Moussa Dembele.

In their last two league games Spurs were blanked at home to Wigan, a team with the fourth worst defensive record in the league, and only managed to score on a set piece header in the 2-1 loss to Manchester City, a game in which they had only two shots on target. Dembele operates as one of the two holding midfielder's in Spurs' 4-2-3-1 and has the ability to advance the ball from defense to attack with his powerful vertical dribbling.

Dembele's bursts are so important for Tottenham because, unlike their rivals for Champions League spots, they don't have an attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward gifted at playing just off the striker and linking play between deep lying midfielders and forwards down the middle. In Spurs' current 4-2-3-1, both Tom Huddlestone and Sandro stay relatively deep in their holding roles. Therefore it's crucial the central player in the attacking midfield three finds space to get on the ball in attacking positions and has the technical ability and creativity to find forward passes that dissect the defense.

Spurs have played Gylfi Sigurdsson and Clint Dempsey in this central playmaker role but neither have performed it particularly well. Sigurdsson has struggled to have the impact he did at Swansea last season while Dempsey isn't suited for this role. He's a fine athlete and a good finisher with a knack for popping up in the right position to score goals. He is not however an especially technical player nor does he have the passing ability and vision to pick apart a defense with one clever ball.

The lack of an effective center attacking midfielder means Spurs best method of advancing the ball forward has been down the wings with Aaron Lennon and Garreth Bale. They'd of course frequently utilize the incredible pace of Lennon and Bale even if they had a strong central attacking midfielder but the problem is that these two are most effective on the counter when they have space to run at defenders. When the opposition gets their midfield behind the ball it's more difficult for them to use their pace to run by defenders. This is when it becomes important to have an attacking midfielder that can find seams between opposition center backs and holding midfielders in middle of the pitch to get on the ball and create.

Villas-Boas has used Dempsey as the center attacking midfielder in the defeats to Wigan and Manchester City. Last weekend at the Etihad he completed only 8 passes in the attacking third. He completed just 4 passes in the final third the weekend before against Wigan- an astonishingly low number for an attacking midfielder.

Without a player adequately linking midfield to attack Spurs have been forced to skip over the midfield and play hopeful longballs out of the back to advance the ball into the attacking third. They completed just 47 of 99 attempted passes into the final third against Manchester City, a truly abysmal conversion rate. A large portion of those failed passes were hopeful longballs launched towards the box. The attempted longballs can be explained in part by the fact the taller Adebayor had been given the start at striker over Jermaine Defoe but Dempsey's failure to find space to get in possession was also largely to blame.

Spurs' inability to get the ball to their striker in dangerous goalscoring positions is evidenced by the locations on the field Adebayor received the ball last weekend. Of the 31 times he received the ball, only one of those was inside the box and several were near midfield or in Tottenham's defensive half. Defoe was given the start the previous weekend against Wigan. He only received the ball 7 times in the 58 minutes he was on before being subbed, none of which were in the box. In order to score goals your striker needs to receive the ball near the penalty area. Much of that responsibility falls on the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 and at the moment Sigurdsson and particularly Dempsey are not getting the job done.

Obviously there will be other key factors in tomorrow's North London derby, particularly the poor recent defensive record of both teams. After keeping clean sheets in each of their first 3 games, Arsenal have managed just one in their last 14. They've conceded more goals in the last 4 games than they had the first 13. Spurs meanwhile have just one clean sheet in the league this season. However, all of the leagues top sides have had their defensive struggles this season including both Manchester clubs and Chelsea. One of the major factors that currently separates these sides from Tottenham is that they all have very gifted players to play off of the forward and create goalscoring chances-Cazorla at Arsenal; Fellaini at Everton; Kagawa and Rooney at Manchester United; Harzard, Mata and Oscar at Chelsea, Silva and Aguero at Manchester City. Over the course of the season Spurs lack of a central attacking midfielder may well prevent them from securing Champions League qualification.