Quantity over quality: Tottenham's midfield conundrum
If you asked Tottenham fans to name their first choice team, nine out of ten would place Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason in the middle. The two players have been promoted through the youth ranks have become key players in implementing Pochettino’s high pressing style which focuses on urgency in possession and an intensity without it.
However, The Argentine is without both the youngsters; Bentaleb is on AFCON duty with Algeria and Mason is struggling with a hamstring injury. The jury is still out on the remaining four centre midfielders at the club who cost a combined £46million, all of which have sparkled in short spells but all have been marked as replaceable by fans but at least two of them need to step up if Spurs want to challenge for top four this season. So what is it Bentaleb and Mason offer and what can the others offer in their place?
Nabil Bentaleb is arguably one the biggest young talents in Europe, not just the Premier League, at only 20 years old he plays well beyond his years. Perhaps most importantly he has the energy and the fight to implement Pochettino’s style, looking to drive forward with the ball when possible but has the control and composure to keep hold of the ball at the right times. He didn’t initially have the support of all the ‘supporters’ due to being synonymous with ‘Tactics Tim’ but that started to change after his outstanding performance in the 1-1 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates earlier in the season.
He has great awareness for his age, highlighted in his back heel assist for Nacer Chadli against Newcastle in the 4-0winin the League Cup, yet it is perhaps his defensive and positional awareness which is more important as the deepest player in the Tottenham midfield.He was constantly in the right place in particular against Southampton but can also play a different style, as shown against Chelsea, where he man marked Cesc Fabregas out of the game.
Bentaleb is fast becoming one of the best box to box midfielders, his willingness to tackle and then burst forward immediately makes him the perfect Pochettino player and his importance to the team is shown in their record with and without him. He has played 18 games in which they have won 12 and in the 17 games he hasn’t played they have only won 9 and lost 6.His attitude is far beyond his years and it’s very impressive the stature he has already at the club he told the official Spurs site in regards to the Chelsea game that;“Before the game I spoke to the guys and we said that we would leave everything on the pitch.” He appears a real Spurs fan and more often than not just falls to his knees with elation when the team scores.
His partner in his new young midfield is Ryan Mason, the 23 year old has been through numerous loans and injuries but this season, after impressing in pre-season has been given his chance and has certainly taken it. It might be unfair to say his game is based around his energy but it plays a big part,he has the urge to attack, demonstrated with the late chance against Man United after a beautiful through ball from Kane. Would we have seen someone like Dembele make that run, it is highly unlikely.
Mason looks to pass the ball forward quickly but also has a great amount of composure in his passing when necessary such as Adebayor’s goal against Newcastle in the league when Mason chipped it up perfectly for the Togolese striker to head in. In the past few weeks there have been question marks over his passing and consistency, against Aston Villa he was superb showing great tenacity off the ball and a superb passing range, yet against Manchester United he completed only 57% of his passes. In that game however, he was fantastic defensively, recovering the ball 6 times.
His high energy style is probably a reason for his high number of injuries but is another great player for the manager’s style. With question marks over his consistency of passing and poor finishing, despite his screamer against Nottingham Forest, there is definitely still room for improvement for Ryan Mason who still seems a fairly raw talent.His passion though and love for the club endear him to the fans after seasons of turmoil.
Now, to the replacements, where better to start than the enigma that is Mousa Dembele. I believe this tweet sums up how Spurs fans mostly feel about him;
It’s virtually impossible for an opposition player to get the ball off Dembele. And if you were an opposition player, why would you want to?
— Bankrupt (@bankruptspurs) January 10, 2015
He is undoubtedly a man of huge talent and incredible strength that bumps off challenges with ease and can ghost past players whenever he wants but that doesn’t seem to be often enough. Dembele seems to ponder on the ball, taking way too many touches and moves the ball too slowly and often sideways unlike Mason and Bentale band ruins any potential momentum Tottenham can gain in a transition. This allows the opposition to re-organise and become much harder to break down, especially for a Spurs side that struggle against teams who sit and soak up pressure.
However, there have been glimpses of the Dembele who was part of a great centre midfield partnership with Sandro in 12/13. He replaced the injured Mason in the 14th minute against Chelsea and had his best game in a long time. His strength and composure was vital, allowing the other players around him to flourish as the side scored five. He was also impressive against Sunderland, his passing was much swifter and against Palace he assisted the assist with a rare forward pass between the lines to Chadli but overall in that game it was still too slow.
Unlike Mason and Bentaleb there is questions about his commitment he was seen visibly turning away from Puncheon’s winner whereas there is little doubt Mason or Bentaleb would have been there blocking it. Also, against Chelsea, for Hazard’s opening goal he offers Rose no support whatsoever turning his back on the ball, just stopping and appealing, avoiding the basic rule of play to the whistle.
Dembele is perhaps the most talented of all the options but his apparent lack of enthusiasm to pass the ball forward quickly, or to press quickly or to even get ready off the bench quickly to replace Mason against Chelsea, where he didn’t even have his socks on will perhaps mean he will always be on the fringes under Pochettino and his long term career will most likely be elsewhere.
The only one who is a Pochettino signing, Benjamin Stambouli like many a Spurs player past and present has been fairly inconsistent, looking a solid and assured signing one game and a rash and poor passer the next. It is quite possible the Frenchman has struggled to adapt to the English game and is a busy player who looked very good against Sunderland at the weekend where he supported the attack winning second balls, making tackles and interceptions helping set up attacks.
However, he isn’t the complete defensive midfielder that some Spurs fans were expecting; he is rash in the tackle like against Palace, where although no contact was made for the penalty that Joe Ledley won it was unnecessary for Stambouli to go diving in like that. Once he learns his limitations and plays a simpler game as doesn’t have Huddlestone’s passing range he will put in more consistent, solid performances. That alongside a good work rate he could well become an important part of Pochettino’s Tottenham.
Etienne Capoue is one of the infamous seven signed with the Bale money and for the second season in the row he started very strongly and the second where he fell off a cliff. His appearance in the FA Cup third row against Burnley was his first since November 9th against Stoke, a game where fans and the manager alike seemed to have had enough of poor performances by certain players and Capoue was one of them. Capoue has very suspect positioning and despite his build seems to offer very little defensively but has the ability to carry the ball and take a player on. Against Burnley there was one moment where he volleyed a cross field pass which was nowhere near Danny Rose, it was uncertain if he even looked. Capoue is perhaps the most likely to leave, if not this month then the summer as he is constantly linked with Serie A clubs and has the least potential out of them all and doesn’t really fit Pochettino’s fast paced style.
Finally the one time record signing Paulinho has the potential to be an absolute star, just maybe not in the Premier League. He has undoubted talent but isn’t strong enough to play in the deeper role,however, he was impressive under AVB. ‘Little Paul’ had plenty of glorious chances to score last season, but missed them, he scored against Burnley in the FA Cup replay and shows he has knack for being in the right place. There is clearly a clever footballer there but Paulinho hasn’t had a proper rest since before the 2012 Confederations Cup but he really isn’t that suited to the Premier League. In the first FA Cup game against Burnley he played alongside Dembele the performance was very much like an AVB game, the transition was so slow it was almost non-existent and will most likely move to a Serie A team in the summer and become a fantastic player for a Champions League team in a slower league which will allow him to play the game at his pace. It is unfortunate because it is a poor signing, by whomever, most likely Baldini,a waste of money, unnecessary big money pressure and a promising career stalled almost to a stop after being promised the chance to play alongside Gareth Bale.
In the short term it seems Dembele and Stambouli are a solid pairing with Mason and Bentaleb missing but they both have to be on their game, otherwise Tottenham’s entire style disintegrates and the resort back to slow football which gets the crowds back up and they can’t always rely on Eriksen to score late winners. Capoue and Paulinho are useful squad players as Tottenham battle in four competitions but it is unlikely they will be at the club next season.