With Mousa Dembele experiencing a lengthy layoff, Tottenham haven't looked themselves in recent weeks. Can we hope to address such malaise in the future in the Belgian's absence?
As the final whistle blew on Spurs' most ignominious defeat of the season at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, I began to mentally prepare the reasoning and retorts I'd be forced into deploying to counter the cruel mockery of my football-supporting friends. Adebayor's moment of madness and subsequent dismissal which effectively skilled off the tie would be the main bone of contention; perhaps our lack of true impact sub options off the bench would be another issue to which I'd appeal. My go-to explanation however, as it has been for such a long stretch of the season already, is that Spurs are still missing the player many would identify as currently our most pivotal: Mousa Dembele, the playmaker whose creativity and guile has been at the heart of everything Spurs have done this season.
On paper, the stats tell a straightforward story regarding Dembele's influence on the fortunes of the team. In all four games where Dembele has started for Tottenham so far this season, the side has run out winners, including a landmark 3-2 defeat of Manchester United at Old Trafford. In games where he hasn't featured, or entered the fray as a late sub, Spurs have won one, drawn two, and lost five. Of course, the bland facts of scorelines always conceal as much as or more than they reveal when used to determine the influence of certain players within the team. Yet few would deny that Dembele's absence has had a clear, visible impact on the performance of the side since he first went down with a hip injury while playing for Belgium during the last international break. With the hulking playmaker lining up in a dynamic pairing with Sandro in Spurs' midfield, the side often crackled with a verve and fluency that kept them around the top four early on in the season. Without him, the side has looked listless, sluggish, and unable to break down organized defenses. Across the board, from possession figures to shot counts, Tottenham have crashed statistically in Dembele's absence.
It seems justifiable, then, to argue that Spurs' recent run of poor form can be explained by Dembele's enforced spell in the physio room. This state of affairs, initially, provides a modicum of comfort- primarily, in the knowledge that Spurs can and will improve when the Belgian midfield returns from his lengthy layoff. Yet it also begs an alarming question- is this current incarnation of Tottenham, in first epoch of AVB's reign, a one-player club?
Obviously, before any conclusions can be reached, some definitional clarity is needed on what 'one-club player' is actually taken in this respect to mean. The most literal way in which the phrase can be understood would follow the lines that Dembele is the only player of any real quality in the side. Filling out most or all of the parts of the roster that aren't Dembele-shaped is a collection of average squad players who would warm the benches of other sides in the League and would never be seen as important components of an elite squad. With the departure of Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart, and in the absence of the Moose, the lack of talent across all position in the side has been finally exposed once and for all.
To this basic definition, it's likely that pretty much all of us would take objection. Since that fateful night when White Hart Lane delighted in seeing him absolutely tearing apart Maicon in the Champions League, Gareth Bale has been held up as one of the world's most talented left wingers, and has constantly been identified as a target for Europe's two greatest rivals, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Sandro's tenacity and energy in midfield has guided him to the inconceivable responsibility of the Brazilian captaincy on multiple occasions. Jermain Defoe, for all his faults, has been in rich scoring form all season, while Aaron Lennon has grown in stature and maturity, and Jan Vertonghen has lit up the Premier League with his elegant ball playing and effortless tackling.
It's thus difficult to argue that Tottenham's recent slump is due to the side's current existence as a 'one-player club' in the the straightforward sense of only having one player of true quality. Perhaps, however, there is a further, more subtle and pertinent thread that can be drawn out of the one player club concept which might provide a more insightful look at Tottenham's struggles in the absence of Dembele. Undoubtedly, while decimated with unfortunate injuries, the Tottenham side at this present moment remains at this present time flush with talent. The problem lies in fact that without an orchestrator in midfield, the side cannot manifest this potential for entertaining, positive football. Rather than lacking all of the component parts of a good side, it could be said that Tottenham are in fact a jigsaw that is complete right down to a single piece- the one which directs all of the side's energy and skill and converts it into results. This definition clearly stretches the discussed concept out of it's normal proportions- rather than a 'one-player club', Tottenham in this sense could be seen as an 'all-bar-one player club'. Yet even if this definition doesn't quite jibe with the classic notion of what 'one-club player' means, it shares with it a common thread- that without Dembele, Tottenham will simply not be able to co-ordinate themselves to compete with their opponents this season, both literally on the pitch and in the more abstract context of the race for the top four.
Sadly, this definition appears superficially to correlate precisely with the problems Tottenham are facing at the moment. It's not that Dembele is the only player of distinction on our team; but, quite simply, that he's the man who gets the other players of distinction firing on all cylinders, bringing to life the squad as an organic unit. Bale and Lennon, indisputably, are classic British wingers, despite their use in a 4-2-3-1 formation this season. Without a player spreading the ball out to wide areas, they will struggle to involve themselves in the game, even if they make some effort to cut in to receive the ball or swap flanks with each other. Similarly, Jermain Defoe is not a striker who can create much for himself in the face of goal- without a decent link man who can help the team beyond long-ball hefting, he's likely not to feature in the game. Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson have not demonstrated the linkup abilities as of yet to solve these issues. Tom Huddlestone, by contrast, has the technique and vision to partially adress them; yet his lack of mobility creates further issues within the side, as players will stand off of him and simply mark the intended recipients of his passes safe in the knowledge that he won't attempt to take defences on and attempt threatening dribbles. With no Dembele, it simply seems that our squad lacks the blend of guile and technique to bring the quality vested in our side out.
Clearly, this issue could be solved with the purchase of another creative midfielder to orchestrate things from the centre of the park in January; however, it is not an unreasonable man who asserts that Daniel Levy's track record of reluctance to spend big on key players in the middle of the season might render this notion unrealistic. Yet I still feel the picture requires further examination before the conclusion is reached that in the absence of Dembele, this Tottenham side cannot hope to achieve the dizzying heights in the League touched but ultimately surrendered last season. There still remains one, admittedly asinine sounding and deeply unpopular, solution left to consider before the 'one-player club' badge can be squarely and painfully pinned onto this current Tottenham side. Fundamentally, I feel that at times when Dembele cannot feature for the club, the most tenable option which allows Spurs to address all of the current problems it is experiencing with it's squad is to experiment with a 4-3-3, with Carroll, Sandro and Huddlestone forming a midfield trifecta at the heart of the side.
The logic is that Carroll, while young and unproven in the Premier League, is very much a player who looks like he could fulfill the role of the mobile, box-to-box playmaker that could restore some of the mobility and tact which is lost in playing both Tom Huddlestone and one of Dempsey or Sigurdsson. His heat maps from the Wigan and Arsenal games showed that he managed to make multiple touches in most areas of the pitch, while attempting passes averaging 20 metres in both. To cover for his lack of experience, Huddlestone would help to fill out the midfield while surrendering some fo the burden to drive on the side, while Sandro could sit deep and help to sweep up any errors that pairing could make.
With this option taken into consideration, I don't feel Tottenham necessarily need to be viewed as a one-player club, either in the sense of only having one quality player or of needing one key player to get the whole squad functioning. The use of the aforementioned trifecta could be an internal solution that would provide not merely a patch from the gap left by the Moose, but get the squad simmering away at a performance high level again. Such an approach would remove the imperative to take rectifying action in January and spend big to prevent reoccurrence of the side's current struggles. Dembele has been key to the side's fortunes so far, and without him we do indeed look a little at sea on the pitch. Yet I firmly believe that a midfield three of Carroll, Huddlestone and Sandro, even if only deployed against a few less threatening Premier League sides to begin with, could provide a solution to the lack of positivity and thrust the side suffers in his absence. It remains to be seen if Villas-Boas will opt to gamble on youth in selecting the young centre mid now in future games where Dembele can't play, or simply tough it out and continue playing Dempsey or Siggy in the hole; or, more implausibly, rely on a windfall from Daniel Levy.
In any case, the resources arguably exist within the current squad to get the side firing even in the Moose's absence. Tottenham are not at this moment in time a one-club player- merely one with hidden strength and fluidity which the manager is one risky squad choice away from tapping in to.