Talking Tactics

Central control the goal for Hojbjerg and Dembele

By Adrian Clarke 20 Jan 2018
Spurs' Mousa Dembele and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg of Southampton

Performance of unsung midfielders likely to determine outcome of Southampton v Spurs, writes Adrian Clarke

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Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Mousa Dembele are two gifted central midfielders who have not started as many Premier League matches as they would have hoped this season.

Back in favour with their respective managers, and injury-free, their head-to-head at St Mary’s Stadium could be pivotal to the outcome of Southampton v Tottenham Hotspur, writes Adrian Clarke.

Flourishing Dane

Hojbjerg had to wait until 26 November for his first start under Mauricio Pellegrino, but he has caught the eye ever since with a series of composed displays in the heart of the pitch.

He was especially outstanding against Everton, Arsenal and Manchester United, exhibiting outstanding qualities on and off the ball in all three matches.

Demanding his team-mates to play through him as often as possible, the former Bayern Munich man produced the most passes for Southampton in each encounter.

Against a trio of strong opponents he did not give possession away cheaply either.

Pass master

Despite trying to play a forward pass through the lines as often as possible, Hojbjerg never dipped below a passing accuracy of 91%.

When creating turnovers he was just as effective.

The 22-year-old won possession back for his side more than anyone else in each of those three matches, seizing on second balls, making several interceptions and winning numerous tackles.

On his day he can deliver top-quality, all-round performances in central midfield.

Hojbjerg v Dembele in 2017/18
  Hojbjerg Dembele
Mins played 685 961
Passes per 90 62.7 65.8
Pass accuracy 88.7% 92.9%
Chances created 5 10
Tackles won 14 12
Interceptions 17 20
Recoveries 80 94
Dembele bouncing back

Mauricio Pochettino has openly described Dembele as a "genius" but niggling issues with the Belgian’s foot, ankle and hip have meant his manager has been forced to handle his game-time with care this term.

Early on in 2017/18 Dembele failed to live up to his usual standards. Clearly hampered by physical problems the midfielder did not complete a full 90 minutes from late August to early December.

The 30-year-old returned to form with a starring role in the 5-1 defeat of Stoke City in early December.

He made 69 successful passes inside the opposition half that day, 26 more than his closest team-mate Christian Eriksen, and has looked much more like his old self ever since.

Alongside Eric Dier last weekend he was absolutely superb in the 4-0 home win over Everton.

The Belgian regained possession 16 times, double anyone else in his team, and passed with an incredible 97% accuracy as he asserted a firm control over proceedings.

Compelling duel

While Dembele has the bigger reputation, this central contest could be a close-run affair.

Based on this season’s performances the stats tell us there is not a lot to choose between these efficient, but stylish midfielders.

Hojbjerg’s ability to break up play and then pierce the lines with a positive burst or pass is very similar to the strengths Dembele displays for Spurs, and his game is developing all the time.

Neither man is likely to grab the headlines, but how they perform against one another is likely to have a major impact on what happens on Sunday afternoon.

The player who retrieves and retains possession most effectively will wrestle control of the contest in his side's favour.

Also in this series

Part 1: Arnautovic central to West Ham's progress
Part 2: Ibe can spur revival of AFC Bournemouth
Part 3: Bold Pardew can add style to West Brom substance

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