A month ago, few would have predicted that Clint Dempsey would be a Tottenham Hotspur player. But now that he is on the books of the north London club rather than his long-mooted destination of Liverpool, where will he fit in at White Hart Lane?
When Spurs signed Dempsey just minutes before the transfer deadline, it was not the result of a meticulously planned and well-executed transfer policy—far from it.
Just as with the acquisition of Gylfi Sigurdsson earlier in the summer, Spurs showed great flexibility and opportunism by swooping in and getting the player from Fulham at such short notice when another club's bid for the player fell through.
For the relatively small sum of £6 million, they got a highly adaptable player who scored 17 Premier League goals last season and can be relied upon stay fit for a whole campaign.
However, despite his great versatility, it is not yet clear how he will fit into the system favoured by Tottenham head coach Andre Villas-Boas compared to his days at Craven Cottage.
After being signed by Fulham in January 2006, Dempsey played under five full-time managers—Chris Coleman, Lawrie Sanchez, Mark Hughes, Roy Hodgson and, most recently, Martin Jol—all of whom favoured one variation or another of the classic 4-4-2.
Dempsey was able to play in every position across the front six during his time at the Cottage. In the main, though, he either operated from the right side of midfield—giving balance to the four-man unit with orthodox winger Damien Duff on the other flank—or as a second striker.
Had he joined Tottenham last season, when Harry Redknapp was in charge, the transition would have probably been much simpler. But finding a clear role for the American in Villas-Boas's preferred 4-2-3-1 setup is not that easy.
Dempsey has neither the pace nor the consistent crossing ability to play the sort of wide role filled by Aaron Lennon on the right and Gareth Bale—who, in any case, would remain first choice—on the opposite side.
He has rarely been deployed as a lone centre-forward, nor does he have the creativity and vision to play as a No.10.
With the trio of Sandro, Moussa Dembele and, once back from injury, Scott Parker all battling it out for the two deeper-lying midfield roles, Dempsey may struggle to find a natural home in this system.
Dempsey turns 30 this season, and many players would find it too hard to significantly change their game to better suit their surroundings at such an age. Dempsey's famed versatility gives him a chance of doing so, but it is not something which can be counted upon.
Rather than his own adaptability, how well Dempsey fares at Spurs may depend heavily on Villas-Boas's own willingness to change things around.
After Spurs struggled against Queens Park Rangers at the weekend—they were down 1-0 at home at halftime—the coach changed from his preferred formation to a 4-4-2, pushing Dempsey further up in support of Jermain Defoe. Dempsey responded by hitting his team's first shot on target soon after the restart. He went on to have six efforts on goal as Spurs won 2-1, although he still awaits his first goal for the club.
That should have come three days earlier on his first start for the club in the Europa League tie against Serie A high-flyers Lazio. Midway through the first half, Bale's cross from the right was headed home by Dempsey, who had beaten the offside trap, but the referee's assistant erroneously raised his flag.
That match saw Spurs mix things up with Sandro sitting in front of the back four and Bale taking turns to switch from centre to left with Dempsey in a narrower attack on that side. This gave the American more freedom to use his dribbling ability to cut in from out wide and create his own chances, rather than being stuck out on the flank.
Dempsey has proven himself to be a fine player at domestic, European and international levels over the years, one who rarely looks out of his depth whatever the opposition. For the money Tottenham paid, he makes a great addition to the squad.
However, he may have to be patient and wait until the best way of utilising him becomes apparent before Spurs truly get the best out of him.
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