Replacing Mousa Dembélé at Spurs


As the 2018/19 Premier League season draws to a close, Tottenham Hotspur are all set for their first ever Champions League final after beating an impressive Ajax team. With qualification all but mathematically secure for next season’s Champions League, it has been another excellent season for the North Londoners. The season also marked the end of Mousa Dembélé’s time at Tottenham since his move across London from Fulham in 2012. Having spent a majority of this campaign injured before his sale in January, Spurs fans have had to come to terms with life without the influential Belgian midfielder. This tactical analysis will use statistics to analyse the different options to replace Mousa Dembélé at Spurs.

Tottenham Hotspur have impressively managed to keep themselves a competitive force despite a season ravaged by injury that has threatened to expose their lack of summer investment. It is however imperative that Tottenham dips back into the transfer market this summer, and replenishing their central midfield must be high on the agenda. The most obvious priority is replacing Dembélé, who Spurs have sorely missed this campaign.

Tactical analysis: The problem

Without the Belgian, Spurs have struggled to progress the ball through the middle of the pitch as well as they did with him in the side. They have also failed to contain counter-attacks as efficiently, leading to an increase in the volume of shots Spurs have given up this season. They have got results, but they have sacrificed an element of control in the process. Understat’s expected goals model suggests Tottenham are running hot to the tune of almost nine points this season.

At his best, Mousa Dembélé was the lynchpin of a Spurs midfield who gave them balance and control. In possession, his ability to dribble and resist even the most aggressive press helped Spurs dominate games in the opponents half. He is also a counter-pressing machine – Dembélé would often steal the ball back moments after Spurs turned over possession with tackles and interceptions.

Replacing Dembélé –  a player so brilliant on both sides of the ball – is going to be difficult, if not impossible. It is rare to find a player so balletic and strong on the ball, who can also hoover up opponents possession with such ease.

In the 2016/17 Premier League, arguably Dembélé’s finest season for Spurs, he averaged 3.4 successful dribbles per90, had a pass accuracy of 92% and weighed in with 1.1 key passes per90. The advanced xGChain metric, which measures the total expected goals of each chain of possession he was involved in showed he contributed to 0.39 goals per90. From a defensive point of view, he contributed 2.7 tackles and 1.1 interceptions per90.

Possible solutions

Scouring the statistics of players under the age of 25 across the European Leagues has thrown up some interesting possibilities that Tottenham Hotspur may wish to consider if they plan to eventually re-enter the transfer market. Here are just some potential players they may have their eyes on to reinforce their central midfield.

Tanguy N’Dombele

This is very much the high-end, premium option, and in truth, after another strong season for Lyon he may well set his sights on one of the continent’s most decorated clubs. Indeed, Barcelona have been rumoured to be keen on the 22-year-old Frenchman. It would be a coup for Spurs should they manage to secure his services.

This season in Ligue 1 he has averaged 1.9 successful dribbles per90, which is a slight surprise and down from three per90 for Lyon in 2017/18. His passing accuracy clocks in at 89.4%, where he manages to supply an impressive 1.6 key passes per90 from his central midfield berth. With two goals and six assists in all competitions this season, he could potentially add more in the final third of the field than Dembele.

Defensively, he contributes 2.2 successful tackles, and 0.9 interceptions per90. It is clear that N’Dombele contributes heavily in both the defensive and offensive phases of the game. This would be a world class signing for Spurs.

Mateo Kovačić

A current loanee at Spurs’ rivals Chelsea, it is fair to say the Croatian has found life tough at Stamford Bridge this season so far. The Premier League is a tough league to adapt to for foreign imports. He arrived with a good reputation from parent club Real Madrid and can be perhaps listed as a casualty of a confused Chelsea midfield as it aims to get to grips with the unique demands of Maurizio Sarri’s style of play. With his star temporarily dimmed, perhaps Spurs could persuade their old friends Real into a reasonable deal for the 25-year-old who should be about entering his prime years.

Using tactical analysis, Kovačić is certainly not in Dembélé’s league on the defensive side of the ball, but with k2.7 successful tackles and interceptions combined per90, he is certainly no passenger. In possession, however, his numbers in the Premier League so far appear very progressive, where he has 1.3 key passes and an xGChain figure of 0.45 goals per90 from central midfield. Whilst passing accuracy does not tell you a great deal about the quality, direction, and progression of passing, Kovačić does not give the ball away much, with an accuracy of 92%.

He certainly appears like he could be an interesting option to add some much-needed ball progression and control, should Tottenham Hotspur be interested in making a move.

Tiemoué Bakayoko

Tiemoué Bakayoko could also lay claim to being a victim of the chaotic Chelsea environment, where he struggled in his first season at Stamford Bridge in 2017/18. Currently rebuilding his reputation at Milan, he will be looking to recapture the form that led to his move to the Premier League.

With 4.7 combined tackles and interceptions per90, Bakayoko is positively eating up opposition attacks in Serie A this season, and this would certainly suit a Spurs midfield that has been far more porous than usual. Offensively he has completed 2.3 successful dribbles per90 in Serie A this season, with 1 key pass and xGChain of 0.35 per 90.

Bakayoko never particularly settled at Chelsea last season, perhaps not fitting the style and profile on one of the two central midfielders in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system. The statistics certainly point to a player who can contribute both offensively and defensively, and Spurs may show an interest in a player who excelled at Monaco under Leonardo Jardim.

Yves Bissouma

The Malian midfielder joined Brighton & Hove Albion in the summer from Lille and has to be patient in his quest for regular game time at the south coast club. The Seagulls have just secured Premier League football for a further season, with manager Chris Hughton remaining largely faithful to the players who secured safety from relegation with ease in 2017/18.

In the 1681 minutes of Premier League football he has played, spread across 16 starts and 11 appearances from the bench, the 22-year-old has put up some interesting numbers that are more than worthy of further attention.

Whilst a relatively small sample size, Bissouma has not appeared to struggle in disrupting the opposition’s possession in the Premier League, with a huge 4.8 combined tackles and interceptions per90. It must also be stressed that Brighton have one of the smallest shares of possession in the Premier League, so there is plenty more opportunity to recover the ball than a player in a possession dominant side. Looking back at his numbers at Lille, in 2017/18, he managed a combined 5.8 tackles and interceptions per90, which suggests this is no fluke.

On the other side of the ball, Bissouma has completed 2.5 dribbles per90, and at Lille, he managed 3.2 dribbles per90 in 2017/18. Although his key pass rate of 0.7 per90 and xGChain of 0.27 per90 is fairly low, this must be caveated by the style and strength of Brighton – xGChain does tend to favour players at the top clubs. It would be interesting to see whether these numbers would increase at a more dominant side like Spurs.

The numbers that Bissouma has produced in his career so far are more than enough to raise an eyebrow, and whilst of course a more comprehensive scouting process is required, Bissouma could be a real star floating under the radar.

Geoffrey Kondogbia

Geoffrey Kondogbia has had an injury-hit season for Valencia, but examining his numbers from La Liga in 2017/18, he certainly demonstrates traits of a player that should be in the discussion of how Spurs replenish their central midfield.

Contributing four goals and four assists in 2017/18, these statistics show a player that can contribute in the final third in a more tangible manner than Mousa Dembele did. However, the main thing Spurs need is control. They do not struggle to create chances and score goals, so if Spurs did seek out Kondogbia, we may see these types of numbers thin out. Drilling down into his numbers from 2017/18 however, it reveals a player who wins the ball, a lot. With 5.1 combined tackles and interceptions per90, he gets through a lot of defensive work and could be the answer to plug Spurs’ leaky midfield. In an attacking sense, an xGChain of 0.44 per90 seems positive, although he doesn’t go on as many dribbles as Dembélé, with 1.9 per90.


Replacing Mousa Dembélé is going to be a very hard task for Spurs, with very few players about demonstrating such a versatile skill set on and off the ball. This tactical analysis analysed players that exhibit qualities in and out of possession that may be of interest to Spurs to fill the Dembélé shaped void. All of these players should also be subject to traditional scouting, as well as more advanced analytical processes that clubs tend to keep to themselves, but this statistical analysis has shown several players who could be flagged up as possibilities to look at in more detail.

It will be interesting to see how Pochettino envisages his midfield looking in the future, and one imagines that the re-emergence of Harry Winks will comprise a central position in his plans. To this end, it may be that the Argentine coach will look for a player who excels in their destructive qualities, but who can also play a bit to complement and free up the 22-year-old Englishman.

It may also be that Pochettino will persist with the 4-4-2 diamond which means he can distribute central midfield qualities around an extra player, which may open the door open to a Kovačić type who excels more on the ball.

What is clear however is that Tottenham Hotspur will be on the look-out for a do-it-all central midfielder to re-balance their midfield and push them on towards a much sought after Premier League title as well as domestic and European cup success.

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