Mousa Dembele, 29, received a six match ban by the Football Association for attempting to gouge an eye of Chelsea’s Diego Costa during an action-filled London derby in the previous English Premier League season. Dembele’s attempt to hurt Costa was not successful but it has continually cause Spurs harm. Dembele went on to miss the last two fixtures of the season which Spurs subsequently lost and those losses came at the expense of a second place league finish, with Spurs having to settle for third on the final match day.
Without the best box-to-box midfielder in Europe’s top five leagues last season, according to CIES Football Observatory, Spurs were likely to find the rest of the season unfavourable with Ryan Mason deputising. When Dembele started for Spurs, he contributed to a 55.56% win rate with just 1 loss out of 27 games. When he started on the bench, injured or suspended, Spurs were only able to muster a 36.36% win rate, losing 5 out of 11 games. Dembele’s significance to his team arrived from his ability to drive the ball forward from deep, shrugging off players in his way. He opened teams up in central areas and gave Spurs’ attacking midfielders more space in which to operate. Dembele’s ball carrying ability often made opponents vulnerable to an overload of Spurs attackers to defend against. This is the way Pochettino likes to set up his sides to play and Dembele suits it very well.
Another noted difference that exclaims the importance of Dembele can be found in Harry Kane’s performance last season. Kane failed to score in 10 of the 11 fixtures Dembele didn’t start. Furthermore, Twenty-four (24) of Kane’s league goals came in the 27 games Dembele featured from the first whistle. To simplify, Kane was only able to score once without Dembele on the pitch.
Therein lies the issue for Spurs. Whenever the former Fulham forward has been unavailable, his presence and contributions are missed on both ends of the pitch. To help address it, Pochettino looked to the summer transfer market. On the 23rd of June 2016, the completion of Victor Wanyama, the Kenyan defensive-midfielder, £11 million move from Southamption F.C . to Tottenham Hotspurs F.C. on a five-year deal was officially announced. Wanyama’s recruitment to Spurs sees this as his second reign under the Spurs manager, Mauricio Pochettino, and the Spurs boss had glowing remarks to make about the move to the club’s official website:
“He’s a very strong midfielder who is a holding midfielder but can play free and can play very well with the ball.
“He’s powerful and I think he’s a perfect player for us.
“I think it’s very important – when you have the possibility to sign a player like him it’s a good opportunity for us.
“He’s a powerful player and I think it’s a good opportunity for us to add a player that can help us improve our squad. I think he will be a great signing for us.”
Wanyama, 25, has mainly played as a defensive-midfielder for most of his career. However, Pochettino made note of his ability on the ball, to somewhat suggest Wanyama will be able to fill the Dembele void when needed.
Looking at last season’s statistics (Chart Figure 0.1) both midfielders provided good defensive support for their respective clubs with similar rates in tackles won, blocks and interceptions per game. They both featured for a similar number of games with Wanyama starting 29 and featuring from the bench once, and Dembele starting 27 and coming off the bench twice. Though Wanyama had a slightly different role at Southampton, Dembele generally outperformed him in both attacking and defending. Dembele provided Spurs with significantly more successful dribbles per game and a higher number of chances created overall. Wanyama can find consolation in having a substantially higher forward passing rate and marginally better interceptions per game.
Dembele, though fit, was unable to play in Spurs’ season opener as he continues to serve his six match ban. The Belgian’s presence was again missed, as Spurs fought their way to a 1-1 all draw late on in the second half. Spurs struggled to breakdown a stubborn Everton defence and one couldn’t help but think about the difference Dembele would have made. Wanyama had put on a decent display but he was unable to affect Spurs’ offensive efforts in the manner of which Dembele could. Wanyama contributed one take on and zero chances created during the match.
Spurs qualified for the group stages of this season’s UEFA Champions league and will hope to give a good account for themselves in the competition. Pochettino has also suggested a title charge being on the cards for Spurs this season. Spurs will need to find a solution to Dembele’s sporadic absence over the course of the season if they wish to maximise their chances of finding success with both endeavours.