Before his deadline-day move to Tottenham Hotspur, the perennial debate surrounding American star Clint Dempsey was whether he could succeed at a bigger club.
He’d proved his worth at Fulham, but could he do the same on a larger stage? Though only a few months into his Spurs career, many Spurs supporters have already begun to question the six million pound signing of Dempsey and many have raised questions about whether he’s capable of contributing at Tottenham. (This despite the fact Dempsey has already scored two match winners at Tottenham, including a famous tap-in at Old Trafford that proved decisive in Spurs’ first win at United since 1989.)
A missed penalty against Norwich in the League Cup followed by a largely invisible performance in a home loss to Wigan have added strength to the doubters’ argument.
While granting that Americans are about as biased toward Dempsey as the Brits can be against him (and that this does inform the objectivity of my judgment), I think dismissing Dempsey at this early stage would be a mistake.
Obviously part of the issue is simply that a player takes time to adjust to a new club. There aren’t many players who take to a new team as quickly as Santi Cazorla or Juan Mata. Even the great David Silva took time to settle in at Manchester City. So the Spurs supporters who have already started calling the signing of Dempsey (or Sigurdsson, while we’re on the subject) a massive mistake ought to be more careful.
But there’s a second, more significant reason for Dempsey’s struggles. At Fulham, Dempsey played anywhere from left or right midfield, advanced central mid, or striker in a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-4-2. But regardless of where he was listed as playing, Dempsey tended to adopt a free central role, not quite as advanced as a trequartista, but also not as deep as a conventional central midfielder.
In this respect, his positioning often resembled that of Frank Lampard during his best goalscoring runs at Chelsea – fill that odd intermediate part of the pitch between the midfield and number ten position and make unmarked runs on goal. The following heat maps will be illustrative of this basic point.
Clint Dempsey at Fulham
The first map comes from Fulham’s 2-0 win over Bolton in December of last season. Dempsey scored the opener in that match. On paper, Dempsey began on the left side of a 4-4-2 midfield with Moussa Dembele and Andy Johnson up top. Functionally, the formation became a crude Christmas Tree, 4-3-2-1 with Dembele dropping back into an advanced midfield role and pairing with Dempsey, who drifted more central.
As you will see, the vast majority of Dempsey’s activity was in the attacking half, much in the attacking third, and most of his touches came in central areas:
Consider also this heat map from Fulham’s 5-0 win over Wolves in March. Dempsey scored two goals in that one, hypothetically playing on the left side of a 4-4-2 behind Pavel Pogrebnyak and Andy Johnson. However, his average positioning was in the centre of the field alongside Dembele and Danny Murphy.
John Arne Riise prowled the left flank almost as a wingback while Damien Duff and Aaron Hughes had a more conventional overlapping relationship on the right. This created a staggered formation in which the left side of the shape functioned almost like a 3-5-2 while the right side looked like a vintage 4-4-2. The midfield, meanwhile, was set up to work as a 4-4-2 but Dempsey would ghost into the space just ahead of Dembele and Murphy, using a more central position to link up with the strikers and build Fulham’s attack. Here’s the heat map:
To sum up, then, Dempsey’s role at Fulham was shaped by three vital factors:
a) an almost absolute positional freedom,
b) a tendency to drop into the central midfield area, not quite as far up as the hole but usually further up than a conventional centre midfielder and
c) playing off the creative work of his midfielders behind him (usually Dembele and Murphy) and hold-up, linking play of the strikers in front of him.
Dempsey at Tottenham: what’s going wrong?
These factors have largely disappeared in his early days at Tottenham. He does not have nearly the freedom of movement at Spurs, partly because he has to play a more disciplined role in Andre Villas Boas’ system and partly because his freedom often came from being able to drift in from a left midfield position, making him harder to mark.
Note that there is a significant difference between lining up as a left midfielder and drifting into advanced central roles and actually starting out in those advanced central areas. In the former case, you can make runs toward the central part of the pitch that will stretch and confuse the defence, especially in a man-marking situation. Dempsey’s approach at Fulham worked because he popped up in areas where he wasn’t necessarily expected to be. But at Tottenham, he’s expected to be in the hole. So that’s one strike against him, tactically speaking.
Second, Dempsey hasn’t been able to count on the creativity of Spurs’ midfielders because Spurs only have one creative midfield player – Moussa Dembele – and he’s been hurt more than healthy so far this season.
To understand how limited Spurs’ midfield has been, consider these stats: In last year’s 5-0 win over Wolves (in which Dempsey scored two goals from eight shots), Fulham’s midfield two of Dembele and Murphy played 145 passes between them and connected on roughly 92 percent of them. Dembele had a 94% success rate and Murphy’s was 89%.
In the loss to Wigan, Spurs’ midfield two (for sake of argument, I’m combining Sigurdsson and Sandro’s stats with Tom Huddlestone’s) played a total of 95 passes. Sandro completed 95% of his passes, but he only played 19 total before leaving with an injury. Huddlestone, meanwhile, only completed 84% of his passes and Sigurdsson only 80%.
So for 70 minutes of the match Spurs played a midfield two that was completing around 80% of their passes and who only played around 75 passes total. These stats simply bear out what anyone watching the game could tell you: without Dembele, Spurs midfield becomes bogged down due to the lack of creativity, becoming little more than a hub where overrun midfield players make the safest, most conservative pass available or turn the ball over.
For a player like Dempsey who thrives on the type of service that highlights his excellent movement and clinical finishing while concealing his weaknesses, a lack of midfield creativity is devastating.
Dempsey / Defoe disconnect
Finally, he hasn’t been able to count on the link-up play of a striker up front because Jermain Defoe offers no hold-up play in central areas.
He’s done an admirable job of drifting wide to pick up the ball and control, but the service that type of hold-up play provides is of more use to Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, or (as in the first goal against Southampton) Huddlestone, than Dempsey, who is making runs through central parts of the pitch, well outside of Defoe’s passing range.
To understand the difficulty facing Dempsey, consider his heat map from the recent 1-0 loss to Wigan:
In this map, Dempsey receives the ball in the attacking half only eight times. And only one of those touches could maybe be construed as coming in the attacking third. He also has three times as many touches in the defensive half as in the attacking half. So he’s being forced into more disciplined tactical responsibilities, which is limiting the number of touches he receives in the attacking third.
The good news for Dempsey is that Spurs have the sort of players he needs to thrive. Their names are Moussa Dembele and Emmanuel Adebayor. Dempsey already knows Dembele quite well. Meanwhile, if he could produce playing a support role alongside Johnson or Pogrebnyak, it’s not hard to imagine what he’ll be capable of playing alongside Adebayor.
The bad news for Deuce is that both Dembele and Adebayor look to be some way from full match fitness. So while there’s reason to think Dempsey’s peformances in the lilywhite of Tottenham will improve, it could be a while.
(photo credit: Commander Idham via Flickr. Heatmaps courtesy of ESPN).