Kicking the can on Clint Dempsey’s precarious place with Spurs

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Clint Dempsey may have bagged a goal to start 2013, but yesterday was a decidedly mixed one for the U.S. international. With Gareth Bale suspended for diving too much, you would have expected Dempsey, having returned from a groin injury during Spurs’ trip to Sunderland, to start on the left side of André Villas-Boas’s 4-4-2. Instead, Gylfi Sigurdsson got the call.

To his credit, Sigurdsson has forced Villas-Boas’s hand. For the better part of a month, the attacking midfielder has been Spurs’ best player on the ball. If it wasn’t for Gareth Bale’s Boxing Day explosion, you could argue the Icelander has been the team’s best attacker (per minute) period. If he’s fighting Clint Dempsey for playing time, there’s little doubt Sigurdsson has started to get the upper hand.

It’s a battle that’s been implied since Deadline Day, when Spurs took advantage of a short-sighted Liverpool to land the American on the cheap. The move pushed Sigurdsson down the depth chart, and while both players struggled in their first months at White Hart Lane, Dempsey was able to maintain his relative advantage.

Now that Sigurdsson is flashing his Swansea form, he and Dempsey may have swapped spots, a state that could see “Deuce” eventually struggle for playing time. Over the next month, if Emmanuel Adebayor goes the Africa Cup of Nations (for Togo), Dempsey should get starts up top (provided Villas-Boas doesn’t use the absence as an excuse to switch back to a 4-2-3-1). There, Dempsey will be expected to produce goals. If he can’t catch fire, he’ll may slot in behind Sigurdsson on the depth chart when Adebayor returns.

On a fully healthy Spurs team, that means Dempsey is the second attacker off the bench. Specific matchups and game situations may see him used before Sigurdsson, but unless Dempsey can start to winning this one-on-one with the Icelandic international, he’s going to scrounging for playing time in the new year.

It’s a situation that’s always brought the best out of Dempsey in the past. At Fulham, he would habitually lose his place whenever the Cottagers were forced to swap coaches. Within months, he’d not only be back in the starting lineup but be one of Fulham’s best players.

The only difference this time: Dempsey had a spot to lose. André Villas-Boas has never forced him to prove himself. The Portuguese manager has put his faith in Dempsey.

At a competitive place like Tottenham, though, faith is not enough. Bottom line: Dempsey needs to play better to keep his spot.