6 Lessons Learned from Tottenham-Norwich City
Though Tottenham eventually grew into the match, given the first 33 minutes as evidence, the Belgian's presence in midfield could prove crucial this season.
It certainly did in the second half, where it took Dembele just over 20 minutes to open his account in another pocket of London. A tremendous individual effort in the 67th minute sent a disappointing Spurs side into the lead at 1-0.
Spurs were largely bereft of ideas in the attacking third save for a curling first-time shot from Gylfi Sigurdsson (also signed this summer, from Hoffenheim) that edged over the bar and a good early cross from the Icelandic international that nearly picked out Gareth Bale.
Sporting the No. 11 this season—as opposed to the No. 8 he'd worn in campaigns past—Bale was one of a number of attacking Spurs players without much of an imprint on the first half (Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon were the others).
Norwich City boss Chris Hughton had inherited his side ahead of this season like his opposite number on the day, Andre Villas-Boas.
But where the former Newcastle United boss was concerned was in the defensive department—the Canaries scored the seventh-most goals of any side in the top division a season ago, so goals weren't the biggest problem. It was stopping them that was going to be Hughton's first potential imprint.
On Saturday, he got his tactics right in the first half. Dropping striker Grant Holt into midfield when they lost the ball, Norwich were able to snuff out any and all attacks from Tottenham in a first half they dominated for vast stretches.
Clint Dempsey and Hugo Lloris, brought in on transfer deadline day by Spurs Chairman Daniel Levy, arrived too late to play a part in Saturday's match.
Here's six other things we learned from the encounter.
Tottenham Bereft of Ideas in the First Half
The match-day commentator for ITV made the point that, without Luka Modric pulling the strings in midfield for Spurs (the Croatian maestro moved on to Real Madrid this week), Tottenham were woefully inept in building play during a first half that saw chances go begging.
Jan Vertonghen, signed this summer from Ajax, was one of a number of deeper-lying players launching cross-field balls toward Tottenham's wide players (either fullbacks or wingers) on the sideline, whose touch would desert them.
Normally so dangerous on the counterattack, where he has shown a penchant to cut infield with menace, Gareth Bale was strangely silent for almost the entirety of the first half.
The aforementioned decision to drop Holt into midfield made its mark—with nine men behind the ball, Norwich showed a superb ability to hit forward on the counter when they did regain possession.
The two holding midfielders Villas-Boas had picked to start the game, Sandro and Jake Livermore, were resilient in their tackling but hardly penetrative with their distribution.
Norwich Dangerous from Set Pieces and in the Run of Play
Midfielder Robert Snodgrass was sending in sumptuous deliveries from set pieces, his left-footed, curling effort in the ninth minute picking out Russell Martin. The defender's header left keeper Brad Friedel with no chance, but the effort ricocheted off the crossbar.
Snodgrass would get a crack at goal himself in the 42nd minute, but his header back across goal, assisted by a fine left-footed cross by Anthony Pilkington, was parried away by Friedel.
Those two chances constituted Norwich's best efforts during a first 45 minutes that should have seen them grab the lead.
It would take them time to grow back into the game in the second half, but after going down a goal their response was superb. Snodgrass capped an impressive performance in midfield with a goal, and Norwich were rewarded for their play.
Norwich Compact, Resilient
A look at the heat map in the first half showed both sides' right backs (Spurs' Kyle Walker, Norwich City's Russell Martin) in a position far more advanced than the rest of the back four.
That positioning was countered from a Norwich perspective by the spacing of the rest of the side. Hughton had sent out two forwards to start the match, but Holt's defensive duties made him look almost like a support striker or false-nine in relation to his partner Simeon Jackson.
A similar story was in midfield, where central midfielder Bradley Jackson sat far deeper than Jonathan Howson, who was a bit more advanced to his right.
That Tottenham's best chances during those first 45 minutes came from a number of speculative efforts—none of which gave keeper John Ruddy any real cause for concern—was a testament to their shape and approach.
Dembele, Friedel Make the Difference
Coming on for Sandro at halftime, the Belgian £15 million man immediately got on the ball in a deeper midfield role and began spreading passes. Naturally left-footed, Dembele looked to push ahead, much as Modric used to do so well.
Dembele is a far more accomplished dribbler than the former Spurs linchpin, and his deceptive pace makes him a menace heading into the attack.
The upturn in possession and dominance from the hosts would be short-lived, however, and it took until Adebayor's inclusion in the 57th minute for them to again fire into life, save for one long-range left-footed effort from Bale that passed safely over Ruddy's bar.
Despite Tottenham's subpar showing, despite Norwich looking likely to nab a point (at least), Dembele's class eventually sent Spurs into the ascendancy.
Receiving a return ball from Jermain Defoe, whom he'd just played into space on the left edge of the penalty area, Dembele took a touch before flicking the ball behind his legs and firing a low left-footed drive past Ruddy and into the far corner.
It was a bit of sublime skill from the midfielder, who will need time to acclimate himself to his new surroundings in terms of playing style. Thankfully for Villas-Boas, his skill can change any encounter at the drop of a hat.
Brad Friedel was impeccable in goal, and with his streak of games started in Premier League play (it's passed over 300) now under threat from the arrival of France No. 1 Hugo Lloris, one wonders whether his terrific showing today will throw a wrench in the likely plans to make the former Lyon man the starter at White Hart Lane.
Snodgrass Earns His Side a Much-Deserved Point
The goal might have been a perfect reflection of Norwich's performance on the afternoon.
A deep cross sent in from the right was headed on twice, first by Martin and then Holt, whereupon it fell to Robert Snodgrass.
The top assist man in the Championship last season for Leeds United caught the ball perfectly on his favored left foot and dispatched his low, curling drive past a lunging Brad Friedel to knot the score at 1-1.
Tom Huddlestone would receive his marching orders minutes later for a lunging tackle on Jonathan Howson. Entered into the game just seven minutes previously, the England international had barely a chance to break a sweat before he was headed back into the locker room.
Norwich Were Unlucky Not to Win It
The Canaries had a glorious opportunity to steal all three points in the final minute of what had been four minutes of stoppage time, but Anthony Pilkington twice saw his efforts from the top of the penalty box blocked.
He'd had a pass available to him on his left, but elected to go for glory himself—twice.
Still, Hughton had to be ecstatic to have taken a point in so tough a fixture. Villas-Boas could not count himself so pleased.
Off to another difficult start in London—this time in the north after last season's stint with Chelsea—Villas-Boas has now taken just two points from a first possible nine.
The boos raining down at the final whistle were disconcerting, to say the least. Not one month into the new season and it appears the pressure is well and truly mounting for the Portuguese manager.
Norwich sensed the slow start in Tottenham and firmly put themselves on the front foot for much of the match. Save for a moment of individual brilliance from Dembele, Spurs might consider themselves lucky they managed the draw.