Tottenham vs Liverpool preview: Why Wanyama could struggle to replace Dembele's influence
A week after his match-winning goal against Crystal Palace, Victor Wanyama faces a considerable task. When Tottenham host Liverpool on Saturday afternoon, the Kenyan defensive midfielder will continue to deputise for Mousa Dembélé following his £11million move from Southampton in the summer. While that's a big responsibility regardless of the opposition, it might turn out to be particularly hard against the Reds, whose intense pressing tends to punish the tiniest of slip-ups in the centre of the park.
Wanyama has certainly bolstered a midfield area that lacked strength in depth last season, but anyone would struggle to replace the suspended Dembélé. Few blend work rate, dribbling and calm distribution like the Belgian; Wanyama might be able to match him defensively, but the speed of his legs and mind will be given a stern test on Saturday.
The war zone
With neither Liverpool nor Spurs giving an inch, the game got bogged down by long spells of turnovers, frantic duels and misplaced passes
It's worth emphasising how much of a battlefield the games between Mauricio Pochettino and Jürgen Klopp tend to become. Both sides press fervently to deny opponents time and space. This can ruin their rivals’ play, but it can also sabotage their own, and both have occasionally suffered from imprecision by rushed and tired players.
The statistics from last season underline the point. Spurs and Liverpool were both in the top three for successful tackles, denoting their aggression without the ball. On a similar note, Spurs posted only the seventh highest pass completion (80.5 per cent), while Liverpool were eighth (80.2 per cent). This was below Swansea, and only slightly better than Bournemouth and Stoke. As for getting dispossessed, Spurs were top (15.3 per game) and Liverpool second (14.8).
The pair's first meeting last October descended into anarchy. On his Liverpool debut, Klopp employed a high-pressing strategy from the start and his side duly won three corners in the first 10 minutes. Yet with neither Liverpool or Spurs giving an inch, the game got bogged down by long spells of turnovers, frantic duels and misplaced passes. The pass completions were 74.7 per cent for Tottenham and 75.4 for Liverpool; the attempted tackles a wildly high 53-41. The main reason it ended 0-0 was that both sides were better at winning the ball than doing anything with it.
The story was similar in the 1-1 draw at Anfield in April. Liverpool started calmly before suddenly upping the tempo, which forced a series of errors from both sides. “Nearly all the moments Tottenham had in the first half were because we gave them the ball,” Klopp noted, but that seemed nearly inevitable given how the two teams played.
The man who (almost) never fails
Counting players who featured in more than 15 league fixtures, only six pulled off more dribbles than Dembélé in the entire division
It's in this environment that Dembélé is so valuable. When midfielders are stressed and rushed, he possesses the physique and presence of mind to run the game in a composed fashion. Few Premier League midfielders are as adept at shielding the ball and keeping it safe, particularly in deep positions where any error can cost a goal.
This impression is backed up by the fact that Dembélé rarely fails at anything he tries. His defensive contribution is clear: he completed the most tackles per game at Spurs last season and the fourth-most per game in the league overall (3.6).
It's his tremendous influence on the ball which is most striking, though. From deep positions, Dembélé often carries it past opposition pressure points to destabilise defences, commit players and set up team-mates. He recorded the most dribbles per game at Spurs last season (2.9), the next on the list being Harry Kane (1.3). Counting players who featured in more than 15 league fixtures, only six pulled off more dribbles than Dembélé in the entire division.
What separates Dembélé from these six is that he plays far deeper. The others are either wingers or attacking midfielders who operate with the safety net of covering defensive midfielders; Dembélé is the defensive midfielder. The player among those six with the most failed dribbles per game was Wilfried Zaha (3.4), while the ones with the fewest were Eden Hazard and Ross Barkley (1.8). By comparison, Dembélé had a failure average of 0.2.
Then consider his distribution. Dembélé had the best pass completion rate at Tottenham (90 per cent) bar backup goalkeeper Michel Vorm, who played one game. By comparison, double-pivot partner Eric Dier had 83.3 per cent and Dele Alli 75.9 per cent.
Calm amid the chaos
Such qualities are particularly valuable against Liverpool. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that Dembélé's either maintained or increased his averages against the Reds - at least based on the two games versus Klopp - despite the pressure he's confronted with.
In October, he was his team’s top player for dribbles (5 out of 5 completed), tackles (9/9) and ball recoveries (10). The pass completion was 90.6 per cent – more than 15 per cent above what Spurs recorded as a team.
In April, he was even more influential, as Spurs enjoyed 58 per cent possession. He played the most passes after Dier, and recorded a higher success rate than his team-mate, with 61 out of 68 deliveries completed; even here, he was sticking close to his 90 per cent average. As in October, he played an all-action role: 8/8 dribbles, 3/4 tackles, 12 ball recoveries.
In other words, Wanyama has big shoes to fill. He's primarily a ball-winner and put in an impressive 3.1 tackles per game last season, but his qualities in possession are inferior to Dembélé's, with the Belgian much more of an all-rounder. That means that even if Wanyama does a good job against Liverpool, Spurs are likely to miss the composure and drive Dembélé offers on the ball. If there's one game Pochettino would have liked to have him back for, it would surely be this one.