PLAYER ANALYSIS: Tanguay Ndombele and the Mousa Dembele Effect

The evolution of the defensive midfielder is a fascinating one. From the physical destroyers in Keane and Gattuso to intelligent readers of the game in Alonso and Busquets. The next step in this evolution was Belgian midfielder Mousa Dembele. He arrived in the Premier League as an attacking midfielder for Fulham. After a relatively successful spell for the Cottages, he arrived in North London, signing for Tottenham. While he was good under AVB, it was the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino that transformed him. He decided to move Dembele deeper, using his superior dribbling to help transition the ball from defence. This truly changed what a defensive midfielder could do. Since his fantastic 2015/16 season, we’ve seen the emergence of players with a similar skillset to Dembele, with Kondogbia, Sangare, Kovacic and Allan. These players who combine elite dribbling with solid defensive output have made them a player in high demand. Clubs are ready to spend a lot of money on players with these skillsets.

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Dembele’s importance to that Tottenham side can be seen how much they’ve struggled in midfield this season. After Dembele’s defensive work slowing down each season, it was an area where they needed to strengthen in the summer. However, as it’s well documented, they didn’t sign any players. While Dembele has shown his age, no one expected such a huge drop-off. He looked a shadow of the player he once was, and his usefulness to Pochettino was dwindling. Some midfielders will reach this drop-off, especially those focused on their hard work, energy and defensive output. It left Tottenham in a real conundrum. They were lacking any midfielder who could effectively transition the ball from defence into attack. The solution they found just continues to highlight the genius of the Spurs manager, being able to get every last drop of quality out of both Winks and Sissoko, forming a midfield partnership that would solve the issue on the short term. It has given them a huge problem in attack, however. Without Dembele’s elite dribbling, it has forced Alli and Eriksen to come deeper to receive the ball, which has weakened their output and has put more pressure on them defensively. Pochettino has opted to place either Alli or Eriksen in central midfield, with his options that low. It has highlighted their midfield as the area that is in desperate need of improvement.

This is where Tanguay NDombele fits in. The Frenchman was one of the breakout stars of the 2017/18 season, establishing himself as one of the brightest midfield prospects in Europe. In a young and exciting Lyon side, Ndombele has been given the platform to flourish. His signing deserves a lot of credit from whoever handles Lyon’s transfers. In a summer which saw them lose both Tolisso and Lacazette for nearly a combined £90 million, it left a challenge for the club. They acted smartly in bringing in Mariano for less than £10 million, and NDombele on loan. It’s what makes NDombele’s arrival so strange. He arrived on loan and was signed for £7.2 million before the 2018/19 season, a true bargain in today’s market. Nothing was well known of him at the time and only made 3 starts for Amiens before leaving for Lyon. The club has been known for finding players in obscurity before. They’ve taken risks on older players like Marcelo and Jallet, while also ready give the younger players a chance. During the 2017/18 season, Genesio was starting Tousart, Aouar and NDombele in a midfield three. All were young and excelled in their bid to secure Champions League football. NDombele was the stand out of the trio. His maturity and strength showed him to be above his peers in terms of importance for the side. He was essential in giving the side defensive stability, while also using his incredible ball retention skills to help push Lyon further up the pitch. Lyon is a side full of great dribblers. Aouar, Fekir, Depay, Traore and Mendy are all excellent in moving the ball into the final third, but NDombele stands out. He’s been averaging over 70% success rate for dribbling, a high figure for a player who usually receives the ball in crowded areas. It’s actually one of his most impressive qualities. No matter how many players attempt to stay tight to him, he will always find a way to avert pressure. During their impressive 2-1 win over champions Paris Saint-Germain, NDombele had one of his best games. He would constantly find space to receive the ball and would drop deep to drag the opposing players in areas they did not want to go. He completed 3 dribbles, made 58 passes, the highest in the side, put in 3 tackles and completed 4 long balls. A well-rounded performance that helped show his best qualities. There is no player in Europe with such a similar skillset to Mousa Dembele. Good defensive numbers, a solid passer, a fantastic dribbler and a player who is press resistant make NDombele a player who is sought after.

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Can Tottenham sign the highly rated Frenchman? It is a possibility. If they are finally ready to spend money and show the rest of the league that they are ready to challenge both Tottenham and Liverpool, they have to. Ndombele was heavily linked to PSG, Barcelona and Manchester City for months. However, with Barcelona signing Frenkie De Jong, Manchester City looking at Rodri from Atletico Madrid and PSG focusing their attention on Allan, it has left Tottenham with a chance to sign him. It does beg the question of if they can afford him. He’s been rumoured to cost over £65 million. While that would be a fee that Tottenham could pay, the issue is there are other areas of that squad that need attention. If Trippier departs for Napoli, they will need another right back. If Alderweireld does decide to leave, as well as Eriksen, Rose, Lamela and Llorente, it leaves a lot of players that need replacing. While signing NDombele is possible, signing him while also needing to find replacements for all the players listed (as well as a goalkeeper with Lloris showing his age). When I spoke about the midfielders that Tottenham need to sign, I didn’t mention NDombele because I thought the idea of signing him was extremely unlikely. Spurs have a gift of having a manager who is able to get the best out of the talent at his disposal. The club might decide to look at players more in line of Billing, Grillitch, Anguissa and Lemina. Players who won’t cost an extraordinary amount while still improving the squad. If Tottenham do want to be taken seriously, it’s time to start buying the best players around, to show the ambition they claim to have.

 

The Underdogs of the Tournament? Borussia Dortmund vs Tottenham Hotspur – UEFA Champions League Preview

Another tie that is strangely hard to decide, let’s look at two teams that overperforming in their leagues, Spurs and Dortmund. Let’s start with Borussia Dortmund, who are having arguably their best season since their last final in this competition. The German league leaders have been very good this season. After the mess that was Borussia Dortmund last season, with Peter Bosz’s incredible start to last season overshadowed by a poor showing the Champions League and failing to continue on that good start. It left Dortmund wanting to pick a safer choice and go for Lucien Favre, also known as the man who breaks the expected goals metric. Mike Goodman from StatsBomb (a website I highly recommend thanks to their great articles and podcasts) said “The magic of Favre is that his teams muddy up games, and press aggressively in midfield, but also manage to have cover at the back in a manner that seems to trick expected goal models.” This was said at the beginning of the season, and Favre has continued the season with his witchcraft. If you just look at xPTS (expected points), Bayern should be the team that are top of the Bundesliga by 8 points, yet it’s the other way round. So how has Favre done it this time? What helped was Dortmund having an amazing summer window. With Hakimi, Akanji and Diallo arriving to fix the defence on the long term, and Witsel and Delaney adding some needed steel to the midfield, Favre had a team with all of its leaks covered. I could not be more wrong about Witsel and Delaney. I never understood in the summer who these two were signed, but now I get it. Their strength, aggression, pressing ability and overall stature has made this side way less sustainabe to being as open they were last season. Witsel is great at keeping hold of the ball, and just adds a real aerial threat to the side, as shown by the Belgian’s 3 goals this season. They look less like half a Pep side, and now look like a team with a plan.

By far their biggest threat in this tie is their captain, Marco Reus. The German has arguably been one of the most unluckiest players in history. He has missed multiple international competitions and a lot of games for Dortmund. However after having a stellar end the season, and finally going to a World Cup for the first time, he is finally back to his best. With Dortmund having a slight striker problem, Reus has been reliable in carrying the team’s goals, scoring 13 and assisting 6, more goal contributions than any other Dortmund player. While his dribbling has declined, it’s because of how central he is playing now. 23 out of his 29 starts have been been rather in attacking midfield or even as a striker. He doesn’t need to beat players anymore because he’s the one on the end of chances. He’s arguably in the form of his career. The other massive threat are the full backs. Andrek Hakimi and Lukasz Piszczek have been a great blend of experience and youth. Piszczek has been making more than 4 tackles and interceptions a game. While he has barely been contributing in attack, his crazy defensive work does make up with it. Hakimi has been sensational during his 2 year loan spell. In the Champions League, only Marco Reus has created more chances than the Moroccan. They balance each other out and make them a good threat in attack.

Tottenham are in a similar place as Dortmund. They are also performing way better than they arguably should be. The North London side are currently sitting comfortably in 3rd, and have actually not drawn a game yet, which might just be the longest run where team has done that. While Tottenham are in a good position, statistically they have gotten worse. This is understandable. They have dealt with multiple injury problems all over the pitch. Whether it’s being forced to play an inexperienced Foyth, having to play Winks for nearly every game or playing Son when he clearly shouldn’t be. They are doing very well considering the situation they’re in. This does bring it back, as it was bound to do, to their summer dealings, or lack of them. It’s now been more than a year since Tottenham have signed a player, being Lucas Moura in late January. This wasn’t like a situation where they’re team was good enough, because it wasn’t. Their midfield desperately needed fixing, with Dembélé dropping off, Dier and Sissoko being average and Winks still not good enough, it left Spurs with a void to fill. If they just splashed a lot of money on one player in the prime of their career, like Thiago Alcantara or Brozovic, it would have shown some desire and at least a show of wanting to compete. There seemed to be a conflict regarding what players needed to be signed. Pochettino only wanted players who could improve the first team, while Levy only wanted squad players. It’s a problem that this team needs to address. I heard Alex Scott on Sky Sports say that this side is still a very young side, which just isn’t true anymore. Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Trippier, Sissoko, Rose and Llorente are all over 28. They need to be looking at replacing those players in the next year while some still have value. Even Kane, Eriksen and Son are in their prime years. This was a young side, who seemed to have hit their ceiling.

This is arguably the worst spurs side since that first season under Pochettino, but there are still threats in this side. I am still unsure if Alli and Kane are going to be back, so they won’t be discussed. Let’s begin with one of their most important players, Christian Eriksen. The Danish international has been one of the best number 10’s for a long time now. He has the technical ability that can rival any creator, but adds the important addition of defensive work. The number 10 has became a position that is slowly falling out of trend at the moment. A lot of top teams are struggling to find places for these types of players, with James, Coutinho and Isco all arguably having their worsts seasons in terms of game time. A lot of managers do not want to sacrifice a central midfielder due to their better work rate and discipline. The ones that are succeeding are the less creative types of midfielders. Lingard, Alli and Canales are all players who are more attacking midfielders, yet have a skillset that enables them to play as an 8, making them way more favourable to certain managers. Eriksen also fits in this category. This season has arguably been his worst in a Spurs’s since Pochettino’s arrival. His xG and xA are at their lowest since 2014/15. It isn’t all his fault though. With Spurs’s having a weak midfield, he has had to come deep to receive the ball to add an element of creativity. He has still been good this season, but he is much better when he has a player like Dembélé behind him. With Winks and Dier both being quite average players, it’s forced Eriksen to play as more of an 8 than a 10. He will still be a massive threat to Dortmund though. One player must be addressed too, and that is Heung-Min Son. The South Korean international has been the most important player for his side this side. After returning from the World Cup, going to the U23 Asian games and going the Asian games in January, he has had to work himself tirelessly for both club and country, and he hasn’t even shown any signs of complaining. He has been the driving force of an attack that is missing it’s two best players. Tottenham have Son to thank for all of the goals he has scored, to keep Spurs competitive in the league. His pace, ability to stretch defends and beat players in one on ones, makes him a player Dortmund have to be careful of.

If Dortmund wish to advance to the next round, they must take advantage of the weak links I mentioned, starting with the midfield. With the likeliness of Pochettino starting Sissoko and Winks, it leaves plenty of areas to take advantage of. Winks’s defensively is probably the worst player in the side. While he is a very good on the ball, his reading of the game and defensive workrate is just not there, and it’s a problem. It’s why Eriksen has been having to come so deep, to just add an extra number in the middle of the park to add some superiority. Reus is key in this area. He just needs to finds those areas between the midfield and defence and make life incredibly hard for the midfield pair. The wingers are also key. While all of Tottenham’s full backs are decent players, they all of defensive problems in some way. Rose can advance far too much up the pitch, making him easy to catch out. Trippier and Davies are all way too slow and are so easy to beat on the counter attack. Aurier, while physically great, has a massive error in him. Whether it’s Sancho, Pulisic or Bruun Larsen, they have to take advantage of a position that other teams have exposed. Look at how Manchester United beat them at Wembley. They used Martial and Rashford to cause the full backs so much problems, creating the blueprint for how beat this side.

There is one thing that Tottenham must do if they want to book their place, and that is the air. To clarify, countless times Dortmund have shown how easily they can be beaten by a simple ball in the air. During their crazy game against Hoffenheim, they gave away 3 goals due to 3 crosses. While Hoffenheim are one of the best teams in Europe for playing in your face, with strength and speed to frustrate their opponents. Tottenham need to replicate this. It’s a massive shame that Dele Alli is missing this game, because he would have been so important in this game. However since he is missing due to injury, it’s up to Llorente to impose himself in this tie. If Tottenham just use his size and experience to get past that inexperienced back line, it could work. He can be frustrating, but they need a vocal point. It’s why I brought up Eriksen as an important player because of his set piece delivery. They need to play this dirty if they want to advance to the next round.

I am backing Tottenham to advance to the quarter finals. Dortmund must put their league form as a priority, and while the game at the Westfalenstadion will most likely go in Dortmund’s favour, Tottenhem will come out of this tie as the victors. I’m still unsure about whether Favre is an elite manager, but I know for a fact that Pochettino is.

8 Players Unlucky To Not Be at the 2018 World Cup

With only 23 players available for each squad, it means some players miss out for some particular reason. Whether it’s injury or manager had better options, these are players who would feel a bit unlucky that they won’t be in Russia this summer.

Mauro Icardi

When Sampoali was appointed the manager of Argentina, I thought this would be a chance for change in team selection. While Dybala is finally getting the chance he so rightfully deserves, Icardi is still not getting the same chances. Argentina have the joys of having so many attacking options, in Aguero, Messi and Higuain. It means other players getting a chance can be difficult. Icardi has for 4 years straight, been one of the most consistent strikers in Europe. He is a very good all around finisher, whether it is with his feet or with his head. He was the top scorer of Serie A last season, with 29 goals. It is just so surprising that the top scorer in Italy isn’t going to the world cup. I think he should be going instead of Higuain. Higuain is now 30, and Icardi is 26. Icardi has another world cup left in him. Bringing a much more inform striker, one who is still in his prime. Just makes much more sense.

Philipp Max

While many would say Alex Sandro is unlucky to miss out, it hard to argue when both Marcelo and Felipe Luis were both better last season. However an argument can be made for Philipp Max being taken to the World Cup. The Augsburg full back was easily the best left back last season in the Bundesliga. He averages a solid 3 tackles and interceptions per 90, but that isn’t why you play Max. His creative output is incredible. He averages an outrageous 2.4 key passes per 90. That’s more than David Silva and Paul Pogba. He also averages 3.2 crosses per 90, which is far superior than Plattenhardt’s 1.5. I completely understand that Lowe has a system and certain players he favours, but not taking the most inform German left back in Europe, is a huge mistake.

Radja Nainggolan

Another player who should be rightfully unhappy for not being selected. While Nainggolan did drop off compared to how incredible he was in the 2016/17, he was still very good. He averaged 2 shots per game and 1.9 key passes per 90. He still was more than good for Roma. I myself do not like Roberto Martinez in the slightest. He somehow has got the Belgium job, after 2 11th places with Everton. It doesn’t make any sense to me how a mediocre manager gets rewards with a team full of talented players. Why Nainggolan should feel angry is because Fellaini was chosen instead. My feelings on Fellaini have been made very clear. He is not good enough for the top level and never will be. Nainggolan offers so much more and definitely should have been chosen instead.

Aleksandr Kokorin

The hosts go into this tournament with no sort of expectations, except to make their country proud. Their squad has a serious age problem. The average age for their 23 man squad is 28.4, which is just too old. One big miss for Russia is the Zenit forward Aleksandr Kokorin. He was in outstanding form last season, scoring 16 and assisting 5 in all competitions. He is your classic big striker, winning 1.8 aerial duels per 90. Having such a physical prescence in the opposition box is always a plus. While having Dzyuba and Chalov, both who are also in pretty good form, is still fine, it would have been better to have a guy who has been consistent up until his injury. Kokorin suffered a terrible injury in the Europa league, ruling him out for the entire world cup. It will be a big miss and they hope they will still get through a relatively tough group.

Harry Winks

Another player who is unfortunately missing the world cup through injury. Winks has been a brilliant player to watch grow, from an occasional cameo, to an important squad for Spurs. One of my favourite things about spurs squad is their depth in midfield. Both Dyer and Wanyama can offer a very physical prescence, Sissoko might not have much talent, but does have a lot of energy, and Winks is a great passer of the ball. He has a great 90% pass accuracy, with 3 long balls per game, showing his range of passing. His progression was cut short when he suffered a serious injury early on in the season. His lack of games makes his stats look worse, such as his low 0.5 key passes. This could have been higher if more games were under his belt. I wrote a piece a couple of months ago saying that Winks should have start, but that injury has ruined a chance for him to show England and world that they have a quality player who could be the future for that team for years.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlein

When the Ox signed for Liverpool last season, many questions were asked. During his time in London, he always showed promise, but Wenger constantly played him in multiple positions, which would eventually lead to him wanting to leave the club. He then joined Liverpool, the club he supported as a youth and dreamed of playing for. From then on, he finally hit the heights we all thought he could reach. Oxlade-Chamberlein was brilliant last season, in playing as an energetic midfielder who would help transition by winning the ball back high up the pitch. His contribution of 5 goals and 7 assists really helped Liverpool advance to the champions league final. But when he suffered that ACL injury against Roma, it was not a shame for the Reds, but also for England. England’s midfield is easily their biggest weakness. While I like Henderson and Dier as defensive midfielders, but don’t offer much in an attacking threat, and Delph is a good box to box midfielder. Ox would add a bit of a direct player to that midfield, and help drive England forward up the pitch to speed up transition.

Ruben Neves

Originally I was going to include Neves in my players who could be become superstars, but then I found out he wasn’t even included in the Portugal squad. Neves was by far the best player in the championship last season, and shown why he was bought for £16m from Porto. What has shown him to be a player above the rest is his passing, He ranked 5th in the championship in passes completed. What’s important to note is all the players above are Fulham players, who played 3 extra games since they qualified through the play offs. He also takes 2.2 shots per game from defensive midfield. What’s most impressive is 2.1 of those shots are from outside the box, which resulted in 6 brilliant goals from outside the box. He also averages 4 tackles and interceptions per game, which proves he doesn’t let his defensive work go. He had one brilliant season, which makes it real shame he wasn’t picked.

Fabinho

The final player is a real surprising one. I have a lot of respect for Tite in the aspect of picking players to fit a particular system, but Fabinho should feel a bit hard done by. He had another brilliant season for Monaco. While many of the big stars like Mbappe, Mendy and Silva all left, he stayed, and continued to show his class. He’s averaged 4.7 tackles and interceptions per 90. What makes this even more impressive is his passing numbers. He averaged a good 1.1 key passes per 90 in Ligue 1, and averaged 4.7 long balls per 90, showing his range in passing. He also contributes to 8 goals and 3 assists. While Monaco themselves dropped off compared to their league winning season, Fabinho can be one of the high points. Tite has stuck with the experienced Fernandinho and Paulinho, and the dynamic Fred and Casemiro. Bringing Fabinho might have been too much, but such a good player should feel a bit unfortunate.