Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tottenham: What is the best option for the midfield duo?

After a long, mostly successful season (albeit without the much coveted Champions League spot) in which they grabbed the record for the club's highest league point total and made a strong run up to the Europa League's quarter-finals, André Villas-Boas' Tottenham Hotspurs are in for a well-deserved resting period. However, there are some issues involving the squad renovation - namely its strengthening as far as wingers and a creative player are concerned, for instance.

Additionally, there is also the need to reassess a particular playing aspect that has undisputed influence over the remaining team: the midfield duo. With AVB now resigned to deploying a 4x2x3x1 instead of his favoured 4x4x3 both at FC Porto and Chelsea, the partnership formed by the two players in the centre of the pitch bears numerous consequences over all of their team-mates and their approach to the match - whether it is because of the number and location of their interceptions or due to the way they go about picking opposing defences apart.

Therefore, it might be appropriate to enjoy the season's ending to reflect on what next season's version of Spurs might have in store as far as midfield is concerned. Who are the most fitting players for this particular position and how do they fit in AVB's philosophy?

For this particular analysis, we chose to use close contests played at home against similar opposition, for a question of consistency.

  • 1. Sandro-Dembélé

The Portuguese coach started off by playing the Brazilian Sandro and the former Fulham forward Moussa Dembélé (Scott Parker nursed his nagging injury for almost the entire first half of the season, lest we forget). Their partnership allowed for a fluid combination, with both men often switching roles and responsibilities. In fact, the two players often found each other at the end of numerous passes, Dembélé using Sandro to create 2v1 situations and defy the opposition already facing towards the goal.

On the other hand, the pair provided the team with a metronomic, reliable and accurate passing rhythm to the team, spreading the play towards the wings (where Lennon and Bale - usually deployed on the flank back then - tried to make the most of one-on-ones).

Despite their mobility, both players seemed to have clear instructions in terms of defensive areas, with Sandro usually stationed to the right of centre and Dembélé on the opposite side. Their intensity allowed the team to press higher, screening their opponents' attacking initiatives and frequently taking the heat off their centre-backs.

  • 2. Parker-Dembélé

Sandro's ligament injury took place almost simultaneously with Parker's full recovery, with the English midfielder getting back into the fold almost seamlessly, from the outside. Now, despite playing similar roles, Parker is a very different midfielder from Sandro. The scrappy Englishman thrives on sweeping up behind his midfield, but is less adept on the ball, which meant the division between the midfield duo's duties was clearer - Parker entrusted with the defending part and Dembélé with linking up the two parts of the team.

Parker and Dembélé found each other less than the first combination of the season, with the Belgian usually showing up higher on the pitch. Not only did Parker found it harder to find his team-mate free, Dembélé also had some difficulties using his midfield partner as a linchpin to start attacks.

Indeed, the change seemed to affect Dembélé in some matches against more hesitant opposition, since Parker would not come up as high and, when he did, he usually gave away possession and misplaced passes more often (usually the ones into the attacking third) than Sandro. With this particular pairing, it was not hard for the other team to guess where the attacking threat would come from, often leading to stalemates that needed Gareth Bale's contribution.

Parker's more defensive-minded inclination also means that he is more willing to wander off toward where he feels the team need him to be, which in turn means Dembélé's attention has to focus on more areas of the pitch (the Belgian's defensive dashboard shows him covering a lot more ground).

  • 3. Parker-Huddlestone

In a season where injuries played a huge part within the squad, hardly any player was able to dodge harsher times. In mid-April, Dembélé's number was up, thus forcing Villas-Boas to yet another change in his line-up and team setup. The unhappy Tom Huddlestone (the player himself admitted he was not willing to stay on if he were to spend another season playing as little) came to the rescue and played alongside his countryman Scott Parker, which once again altered the team's dynamics.

This time around, the two men in the centre barely managed to find each other as a passing option. In fact, Huddlestone's only pass to his team-mate was well into their attacking third, whereas all of Parker's passes are located inside Spurs' own half.

As stated earlier, Parker is not exactly a prolific passer of the ball, much less a creative player by any standard. However, Huddlestone's inclusion (as a sub at first) and excellent passing skill set often helped Spurs creating advantageous situations from deep, forcing Parker to act as a more proactive player higher up  the pitch - something he is clearly less comfortable with.

Despite Huddlestone's valuable work on the ball, he still offers very little when it comes to defending, usually going unnoticed as far as interceptions or tackles are concerned - which then become Parker's almost exclusive responsibility and place Spurs in hard situations.

In this particular game, Parker was eventually replaced with Dembélé (with Spurs forced to muster a win to cling to any hopes of Champions League football) and the change was felt almost immediately: Dembélé had barely stepped onto the pitch and already Huddlestone was willing to play higher up and prove a greater threat to the opposition through more incisive passing and better link-up play - you can see the difference in the chalkboard below.

  • Conclusion

Even though the season ended in a disappointing fashion for the fans at White Hart Lane with another year in Europe's second-tier competition, credit has to be given to André Villas-Boas for managing to integrate so many different solutions in his team's engine room - and coming out fairly well out of it. The characteristics of these four players complement each other well, something that can once again prove vital in yet another highly-demanding season both in England and in Europe.

Still, it is hard not to envisioning a 4x3x3 to take the most out of these players, where Parker could play in his much-loved lonely holding midfielder role, Huddlestone could provide the calm, consistent distribution of the ball and Dembélé would be able to keep wreaking the havoc he usually does further upfield.

If AVB insists on playing the now almost ubiquitous 4x2x3x1, the coach might end up finding that his first option (the partnership consisting of Sandro and Dembélé) is really the best way to go, in order to combine defensive intensity, high pressing, and creative spark with merely two players.

No matter what his decision may be, AVB will not be heard complaining about a lack of depth or quality options in midfield, one of the few sections in his squad that can be tailored to his wishes and to the opposition's strengths and weaknesses.

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