How do Tottenham approach life after Mousa Dembele?

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
July 5, 2018

Most transfer activity appears to be on hold until after the World Cup. As yet, Tottenham are still to add to their squad and, at the time of writing, have not sanctioned any sales either. Toby Alderweireld’s departure appears no closer, while Danny Rose seems to have climbed down from his determination to leave.

Moussa Dembele is expected to go, though, with Inter Milan a likely destination if a fee can be agreed.

The decision to allow the Belgian to move on is a smart one. While his performances over the past few years have been typically excellent, Dembele remains hindered by injury. Tottenham have been managing this situation for some time, have done their best not to over-expose the player to the attrition of the fixture list, and have been rewarded by a midfielder who, even in spite of those issues, remains one of the finest in the Premier League.

He’s also unique, receiving and holding possession like  no other player. Spurs may be blessed with a broad range of distribution from within their defensive group, but the facility offered by Dembele in the middle of the pitch will be extremely difficult to replace. Given how congested the middle of most English pitches are, it’s a great luxury to have a deep-lying midfielder who is able to collect the ball deep, remain completely unphased by whatever attention he receives, and who also has the breadth of technical ability needed to move swiftly up the field.

This is the great challenge for Pochettino. While his squad is lacking in more than one department and will need to be deepened and refined in more than just a single area, identifying a post-Dembele strategy is very much a priority. Yes, support is needed for Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen, while more pace in the wide attacking position would also be nice, but nothing is more fundamental to the way this team plays than that connecting point between defence and midfield.

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It’s really a question without an answer. In 2017-18, Dembele was Tottenham’s most accurate passer in the Premier League, while also beating more players on a per game basis with the ball at his feet. It’s rare to find a player capable of leading categories simultaneously and, currently, there are few others available in the market – few, at least, who fit within the club’s price range and wage structure.

The consequence might be that Pochettino is forced to reinvent his midfield. Because of the spending power of their top-six rivals, fast-paced evolution remains imperative to Spurs. While they seem open to Dembele’s departure – understandably, given that he turns 31 in the middle of July – they prospect of entering their new stadium and another season without him must be incredibly daunting, as. A few years ago, Pochettino famously claimed that his team “do not exist” Dembele and, while a slight overstatement, that is a fitting precís of the situation. The player himself may be fading, but Tottenham haven’t altered their approach to protect themselves from their impending loss.

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Now, they might have to. It will be one of the most interesting aspects of the new season. Tanguy Ndombele (profiled above) has been connected with a move more than once, but he is a far more aggressive type of midfielder – one who may operate from similar starting positions, but not with the same patience or accuracy.

The solution will most likely have to come from within. Pre-season is rarely the time or place to draw any conclusions but, should Dembele depart, it will certainly be interesting to see how Pochettino shuffles his existing players – particularly Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen – to try and compensate. The Argentinian is a creative manager and has certainly thought his way around issues in the past – think of his re-imagination of Eric Dier’s role, or the mid-season introduction of a back-three in 2016-17 – but this is on another scale entirely.

Moussa Dembele Tottenham Hotspur
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