It’d be difficult to imagine a worse situation for Tottenham than going down two goals inside of ten minutes in the first leg of a Champions League tie, much less away at Juventus. And with nine clean sheets out of their last 10 league matches at the time, you would trust Max Allegri's side to control an opposition attack for remaining 170 minutes. Yet instead, it was Tottenham who slowly but surely regained control of the match lead by midfielder Mousa Dembele’s 100 pass completions on 95% accuracy. Harry Kane fired back in the 35th minute. Christian Eriksen tied the match in the 71st. The second leg heads back to England with the two sides level.
Dembele is having a moment. The 30-year-old Belgium’s unique combination of physicality, technique, and dribbling is the current adulation of supporters and commentators alike, although the adjectives to describe the whole of his play are difficult to pin down. He’s been called a “complete midfielder” and a genius with a talent comparable to Ronaldinho and Diego Maradona. His mixture of talents are singular and irreplaceable. Impossible to take off the ball and able to beat a defender one on one from standing position, Harry Winks calls him the team’s best player ahead of Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen.
So is Dembele an attacking midfielder who can defend, or a defensive midfielder who can attack, or a box to box midfielder who can dribble? Our inability to give his style a name points to his significance to Tottenham as there are at most a handful of like to like replacements in world, if any. Operating mostly in the middle third of the field, his ability to control a match with his traits could go unnoticed to the untrained eye. He neither score goals (he has ten in his 14-year career) nor adorns viewers with last ditch tackles. He is simply tasked with the fundamental skill of the game: keep the ball.
He originally slotted into the duo midfield role alongside a traditional ball winner in Victor Wanyama or Eric Dier of a Mauricio Pochettino’s 3-4-3 last season. The responsibility brought out the best of his ball winning, ball retention and hitting diagonal balls on counters. And playing with two center midfielders instead of three gave Dembele space to attack and forced opposition defenses out of their shape to stop his dribble - which overcomes the numerical advantage of an opponent potentially outnumbering Tottenham’s midfield three versus two.
There are small nuances of the role of a midfield duo as noted in Antonio Conte’s title winning 3-4-3 formation from last season. There was a defined role for every player in attack: Eden Hazard and Pedro were counted on playmaking. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso for width. With David Luiz taking care of build up duties, that left midfielders N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic to fill in the rest of the spaces, whether tangible in tackles and ball recoveries, or in controlling midfield space and tempo. And this is getting even further extreme. With fullbacks becoming the new playmakers and pushing even further up the field, then the requirements of Dembele and those of his ilk are even further stretched. In short, they have to do everything from carrying the ball, controlling tempo, to covering any open spaces on opposition counter attacks.
In terms of holding onto possession, they must do so perfectly when one takes into account where this midfielder receives the ball and considering the easy chance an opponent would have if they failed to retain possession. Granted, most mistakes are not as dramatic as Diego Costa's opening goal against Sevilla last weekend in which he took the ball off Ever Banega on top of the box with only an out of position keeper to beat. Tiemoue Bakayoko was signed by Conte for $50 million last summer to replace Matic’s steady hand in possession while adding penetrating forward runs. Yet he had one of the worst displays in the Premier League this season in getting a two yellow cards inside of 30 minute against Watford, each coming after losing the ball in his own half off following a failed turn and lunging into the ball winner.
On the other side of the equation, we analyzed with Adam Lallana’s role as a pressing playmaker shortly after Jurgen Klopp took over as Liverpool manager. Lallana thrives in transition - namely, in winning the ball off the blindside of a player who’s received the ball with his back to goal with only a scrambling defensive line to beat. At its core, the battle between Dembele and Lallana can be grossly simplified into two groups of pressers and ball retainers. The term “pressing resistance” was used to describe Toni Kroos at Real Madrid and Ilkay Gundogan at Borussia Dortmund back in 2016.
Yet if there was one player physically, technically and tactically suited to dominate matches in a Dembele-esque manner, it would be Paul Pogba. While his $130 million transfer fee shades most criticism directed his way, he’s displayed the ball retention, passing and ability to beat defenders one on one in his four year Serie A career. Make what you will of his recent benching under Jose Mourinho in terms of clashing personalities or whether the manager prefers a player with more specific abilities than the expansive Frenchman. But as Paul Ince says, Pogba would be much better suited at Tottenham.
Adding further nuance (or displaying Mourinho’s pessimism, depending on your perspective) is Pogba’s replacement in the starting lineup. At 6’4, both Scott McTominay and Pogba stand the same height and each cut a lanky figure built to shield the ball. But whereas Pogba flourishes in moments of brilliance, McTominay is defined just as much by what he doesn’t do as much as what he actually does. Described as a player who does so little but matters so much, his style in possession is built on simplicity and tidiness on the ball. If Dembele’s drive through the middle of the field represent one end of the spectrum of midfield dynamism, then the McTominay’s quiet play would be its stylistic counterbalance. And somewhere in the middle is Pogba attempting to tone down his natural tools in favor of the simple pass.
The stakes of the position get even higher in this summer’s transfer window with the expected battle over Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic between Premier League sides. Described as a 5’8 Spanish midfielder in a 6’4 frame, the Serbian midfielder is not surprisingly labeled as the next Pogba with a rumored $180 million fee. Yet any Pogba comparisons must be taken with skepticism as the role to get the most from that jack-of-all-trades talent must first exist within the structure of a team. Dembele has created the blueprint for the type of dominance and control that a specific player with those attributes can achieve in the modern game, and is European tested as Juventus discovered. Controlling tempo, keeping possession of the ball, and beating defenders one on one never goes out of style, but it still must be cultivated and unleashed.