81513_demplseyclint_isi_usmnttq06021331 Tony Quinn/isiphotos.com
Talking Tactics

The System Player: A Look at Clint Dempsey's Game

Ben Triana examines the game of the Seattle Sounders' new man, arguing that he never really fit in with Tottenham. Despite Dempsey's impressive skill level, he needs the right situation to thrive.
BY Ben Triana Posted
August 15, 2013
1:57 PM
CLINT DEMPSEY is a player who has proven his value at a high level. He has shown he can score consistently, is comfortable on the ball in tight spaces and under pressure, and can play a number of positions. The 23 goals scored in his last season with English Premier League side Fulham demonstrated his ability, and rightfully earned him attention from clubs with continental aspirations.

But what Tottenham fans came to learn, and what U.S. fans have recognized for a long time, is that Dempsey can disappear for long stretches of games if the style of play isn’t suited to his strengths. That fact explains why he is playing with the Seattle Sounders and not in the Champions League.

Dempsey doesn’t perform as well when having to carry the possession and passing workload for the team, especially when he must drop deep to pick up the ball. He is best off-the-ball. He has an uncanny ability to find space in and around the box, losing defenders, and picking up trash in and around the goal. Dempsey can’t do this if he is an integral piece of the build-up of play. He needs others to move the ball, hold possession, and give him time to get into position. This was not the case at Tottenham, especially towards the end of last season. This was partly to do with the Spurs’ personnel and with the preferred style of the Spurs’ manager, Andre Villas-Boas.

Tottenham came out in many games looking to play through the middle. Gareth Bale would be encouraged to play centrally slightly in front and slightly wider than the central midfielders which usually consisted of Scott Parker along with some combination of Sandro, Mousa Dembélé, Gylfi Sigurðsson, Lewis Holtby, and Clint Dempsey, depending on player selection. Also, Emmanuel Adebayor tended to stick to the middle, hoping to control possession by dropping deep and laying the ball off to surging midfielders. During such play, the center of the field could get crowded quickly.

This was clearly Villas-Boas’ plan. Retain possession, keep the ball on the ground, and build-up the attack, arguably a more Spanish style. The only problem was that this quick-passing-in-crowded-space style didn’t allow Dempsey time off the ball or the space to slip behind the defense, and for Tottenham, the strategy didn’t seem to generate the goals needed to put lower teams away and keep up with the four teams that finished above them.

In their last two months of play, which featured seven games including fixtures against Wigan, Southampton, Stoke, and Sunderland, Tottenham scored more than two goals only once, and it wasn’t against any of those teams. (It was against Manchester City. The final score was 3-1 for those keeping track.) After January of last year, Tottenham never scored more than three goals in any game, in any competition.

Because of these struggles, especially late in the season, Villas-Boas would change tactics, pushing Bale wide—hoping he could cut inside on his left foot and hit a laser, which he often did, and using Aaron Lennon on the opposite flank. While a number of people claim this is a 4-3-3, it’s more a focus on wider play with the outside midfield pushed up rather than a change in formation. With Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker as fullback support, the change seemed to work, and this is probably going to be the default approach for the upcoming season. Last season, this system worked especially well when Jermaine Defoe would replace Adebayor, which allowed Tottenham to stretch defenses, and once Tom Huddlestone entered the game, with his ability to drop forty-yard bombs on a wide player’s foot, Tottenham’s attack truly opened up. (Huddlestone was so effective at this he earned a starting role by the end of the season.)

Unfortunately, these changes didn’t benefit Dempsey.

Never known for his speed and having to carry more midfield duties as Bale and Defoe would be pushed up the field, the faster-paced tactics and increased short-ball, dropping deep, possession and support related, midfield responsibilities often left Dempsey out of position during counter-attack runs, and Bale would always be the first option pass in the final third anyway.

Based on the success of these tactics, the purchase of Paulinho (a box-to-box midfielder with more possession, passing and defensive upside than Dempsey) makes perfect sense. Dempsey wasn’t going to be of much help in this 4-5-1/4-3-3 Gareth Bale-focused hybrid, and with the signing of Roberto Soldado, Dempsey was unlikely to see much of the field along the forward line. The Spurs and Villas-Boas can’t be faulted for this. The best possibility for Tottenham’s futures lies in a system that won’t suit Dempsey. It was best for all involved to part ways.

It’s not that hard to see that Dempsey was going to be a tough fit for the first team. Along with Dempsey, during the summer, the Spurs purchased the aforementioned Adebayor, Sigurðsson, Dembélé, and were definitely expecting Defoe, Parker, Sandro, Lennon, and Bale to continue to be first team players.

This is where personnel dictates play, and Dempsey just wasn’t going to fit in any formation. If some selection of Dembélé, Parker, Adebayor play in the middle and Dempsey is forced to play wide, because of his penchant for cutting inside, he wasn’t going to give the team the width it needed. (Early on, this probably wasn’t a major concern considering Walker and Assou-Ekotto’s offensive abilities.) But more importantly, this led to a style of play that crowded the middle of the field.

Instead, if the team opted for Bale and Lennon out wide and Dempsey in the middle, Dempsey was again going to be less effective as he would be required to contribute to the midfield passing and possession play, and he wouldn’t be the go-to option in the final third. Even before the team took the field, Tottenham looked like an awkward fit for the American, and this is exactly how the situation played out.

But Dempsey and Tottenham didn’t have to make this mistake. All one had to look at was Fulham, their personnel and style of play, and one could have asked if Dempsey was a good fit.

At Fulham, Dempsey benefitted from a Danny Murphy/Mousa Dembélé pairing. Both players could hold the ball and distribute, and Damien Duff and Bryan Ruiz had the skill and vision to hold and pass as well. Duff stayed wide and Ruiz could cut inside in support while Johan Riise surged forward from his fullback position. Since Murphy stayed deep, there was more room for Dempsey to move in the midfield. At the forward position, since Andrew Johnson was a runner, he could force defenses to stay honest and not pressure the dribblers.

In most situations, Fulham wasn’t likely to push the pace. If they did, Dempsey could stay higher up the field as midfield duties were left to Murphy, Dembélé, Diaz, and Duff. With the possession, playmaking, and width duties falling to other players, and with space in the attacking midfield/withdrawn forward area, Dempsey thrived. This is a significant reason as to why he scored 23 goals.

At the highest level, Dempsey thrives under such specific circumstances related to formation, style of play, and personnel. He is a system player, albeit an exceptionally skilled one. Outside of that system, his impact is limited.

This is why Dempsey tends to struggle for the national team when he has to take on the majority of possession and passing responsibilities, and this is why he did not produce at the same level for Tottenham in 2012-13 as he did for Fulham in 2011-12. And this is why Dempsey is not playing for a Champions League team that needs a withdrawn attacker that can slip into the spaces opened up by his teammates. This is why Dempsey is playing for Seattle.

Will Dempsey produce at Seattle? Probably. But when he looks for that European team when he’s ready to go out on loan, and for future American players, it wouldn’t hurt more people to ask, “Will this player thrive in this system?”

Ben Triana is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him here.

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