Tottenham Hotspur started last night’s Champions League opener against Monaco with plenty of vim and vigour, but one thing they sorely lacked was control. They attacked at a tremendous pace in the early stages, but not always in the most refined manner, with Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela guilty of giving the ball away just as a promising attack was building.
Spurs also lacked control without the ball, with Monaco’s swift counter attacks slicing through the heart of their midfield with regularity; the leggy Tiemoue Bakayoko especially impressive. Credit must go to Monaco, who defended stubbornly and counter-punched with great efficiency. They have something of a history for upsetting English clubs having knocked Arsenal out at the last-16 stage in 2015, Chelsea in a 2004 semi-final and Manchester United at the quarter-final stage in 1998.
Things improved for the ‘home’ side early in the second half following the introduction of Mousa Dembele in central midfield which saw Dele Alli move into a No 10 position. The Belgian has missed the start of the Premier League season due to suspension, so it was something of a surprise to see him omitted from Pochettino’s starting XI last night. Perhaps he was judged to be a little short of game time, but Dembele was such a prominent part of an excellent Spurs unit last season that Pochetinno must have been tempted to use him from the start.
The first thing he gave Spurs was some added physical presence and defensive security. Dembele won 83% of duels after coming on, demonstrating a bite in the challenge that was lacking in the first period. The former Fulham man is much more than a ball-winner however, and his positioning helped Spurs dominate Monaco for the first 25 mins of the second half. Dembele is very astute at keeping himself behind the ball, always ready to pounce if it breaks loose to recycle possession and start another attack. This was one reason why Spurs produced ‘waves’ of attacks, rather than the more sporadic moves that were a feature of a more open first half.
Dembele’s introduction also had a positive effect on Alli. The former MK Dons player was one of Spurs brighter players even in the first half, but struggled from a defensive point of view. Too often, Alli let Monaco runners bypass him and tried to get Heung Min Son to track Thomas Lemar in the build up to Monaco’s second, rather than tracking the player himself.
The benefits Dembele brings to Alli’s game have been discussed on these pages in recent weeks. Dembele is extremely good at holding onto the ball in tight spaces, making himself available to receive the ball from teammates and circulating possession. In short, he makes Spurs tick and gives them control of games. This allows Alli to do what he does best, which is to drift into the last third where he can provide the final pass or final shot at goal. With Dembele absent from the team, Alli has to focus on involving himself in the build play much earlier in the move and spends too much time facing away from the opposition goal.
It may come to him later in his career, but Alli is not the player who gives Spurs control and dictates the pace of the match. He is very much an ‘impact’ player, arriving on the scene to finish moves rather than start them. Dembele’s presence on the pitch allows him to focus his energies on doing just this. The Belgian has been badly missed at the start of this campaign, but it is to Spurs credit that they have remained unbeaten in the league despite his absence.
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