How Mousa Dembele filled Luka Modric's boots in Tottenham's midfield

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses the FREE FourFourTwo/Opta StatsZone app to compare Spurs' new Belgian hero with their former star...

In a fascinating interview with the Daily Mail last weekend, Mousa Dembele rejected comparisons with Luka Modric, the central midfielder he effectively replaced at Tottenham in the summer. “I never saw myself as the replacement for Luka,” said Dembele. “I feel like I’m a totally different player…I’m very much impressed by him, but he’s a different kind of style.”

In a way, Dembele wasn’t replacing Modric directly. Andre Villas-Boas taking over from Harry Redknapp meant a significant change in the way Tottenham played, and a different tilt to the midfield zone.

Under Redknapp, Spurs played a slightly old-fashioned British game, using the midfield to spread the ball wide to the wingers, who attacked at speed. Villas-Boas, at least in his early weeks, wanted more verticality from his players, combined with constant rotation of the midfield trio.

As it happens, Spurs have actually returned to a 4-4-2 system in recent weeks, more in line with what Harry Redknapp preferred during his spell at Tottenham. The inconsistent form of Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson, the two men used at the top of the midfield, meant Villas-Boas has turned to a striking partnership of Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor, despite an early setback when Adebayor was dismissed in the first half of the eventual 5-2 defeat at Arsenal.

That has changed Dembele’s role slightly. In the early days, particularly in Tottenham’s debut win under Villas-Boas, away at Reading, Dembele was the catalyst for rotation in the centre of the pitch; he could drop deeper than Sandro, or move in advance of Sigurdsson. Now, with only the Brazilian alongside him, Tottenham’s midfield has a more permanent structure. Sandro sits and holds, while Dembele attacks. In that sense, Dembele’s role is now more similar to Modric’s – physically they’re entirely different, but on the pitch, they’re playing a similar role.

There’s one important exception, of course – Dembele’s still a thrillingly direct player, able to take on opponents at speed, suddenly providing bursts of pace and dribbling from the centre of the pitch. Modric could beat a man, but not nearly as frequently as Dembele does...

But what’s particularly fascinating is Dembele’s passing ability. For a converted winger or forward, and someone accustomed to taking the ball forward solo, you might expect Dembele’s distribution to be wayward. Instead, he’s incredibly reliable when spreading the play wide, as his passes in Tottenham’s most recent two matches have demonstrated.

His distribution is reminiscent of Modric’s. Compare two equivalent games from this season and last – home draws against Stoke – and they have more in common than Dembele admits, being left-of-centre and generally sideways.

The clear difference is in accuracy. Modric was always regarded as a reliable passer, but his completion rate was 87.4% last season, whereas Dembele boasts a rate of 91.2% in 2012/13.

Modric is keener to play ambition passes, and creates 2.7 chances per match for teammates, compared to Dembele’s 2.0, which explains why the Croatian’s passes more frequently went astray. It’s also slightly surprising that Dembele, considering his positional history, attempts just 1.1 shots per game, compared to Modric’s 2.3. As the Belgian explains in the aforementioned interview, as a kid his playground games didn’t involve goals – the object was to dribble the ball towards a lamppost, then ‘touch’ the ball against the post. It explains his love of taking on defenders in tight spaces, and his reluctance to pull the trigger.

Still, it’s highly impressive that Spurs have managed to replace Modric with a midfield that offers similar quality of passing. Dembele can still improve, and contribute more in the final third, but purely in the midfield zone, Spurs haven’t experienced a dip in quality since Modric’s departure.

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