One of Spurs’ best performers last season, Moussa Dembélé’s year was marred after an ugly but well-publicised incident involving Diego Costa that saw him banned for six games, meaning he has missed the first three matches of this season, and will also be forced to sit out the visit to Stoke City.
Without condoning the eye gouge, the length of the ban was ridiculous – a game more than John Terry received for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand – but that’s now in the past, and the practicalities of the ban must now be analysed.
Spurs wasted no time in bringing in a defensive midfielder to cover for Dembélé in the first few games, and then as competition for him over the course of the season. That man was Victor Wanyama, the Kenyan – bought for £11 million from Southampton. Wanyama has impressed observers in his first few games for the north London side, scoring the winner against Crystal Palace and establishing a watertight midfield partnership with Eric Dier.
Dier’s role is not the one under threat by Dembélé – the two worked in tandem to immense effect last season, and probably were the best defensive midfield pairing in the league – but it seems harsh that Wanyama; after such a good start, should be dropped in favour of the Belgian.
Dembélé disappointed for his country in the recent international friendly against Spain. He came on just after half time, but failed to make a positive impact and gave away several fouls in dangerous areas. It is perhaps unsurprising that he is off the pace, given that this was his first game of football since early May, so it makes even less sense to throw him in at the deep end in a Premier League game.
However, Pochettino is not averse to doing this; Jan Vertonghen’s first game back after three months last campaign was against Manchester United and the blistering pace of Anthony Martial, but it was a threat that Vertonghen ably dealt with as Spurs emerged comfortable 3-0 winners. Add to this that Spurs’ next league game after Stoke is at home to Sunderland – a game which they will be clear favourites for, and also one where Wanyama’s more defensive instincts won’t be as important – and perhaps it would make more sense to play Dembélé there.
Both arguments have merit to them. Wanyama is a very good defensive midfield player, but Dembélé is less limited, and is able to play a box-to-box role much better than the Kenyan. Dembélé is an expert at drawing opposition players towards him, which in turn opens up space for the likes of Christian Eriksem, Erik Lamela and Harry Kane to find that little bit of space required to work something magical. This may be necessary in dismantling teams like Sunderland, who will come to White Hart Lane to defend.
Furthermore, it would be almost impossible to leave out Dembélé after his importance in last season, and for that reason he would be expected to feature as soon as possible against Sunderland.
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