You don’t need to be a tactical genius to realise the difference Mauricio Pochettino has made to Tottenham Hotspur’s defensive record this season. In the first eight games, Spurs have only conceded seven league goals in comparison to 11 in the same number of games in 2014-15. Spurs shipped four goals away to Manchester City during Pochettino’s first season, with a misshaped defence unable to cope with the wrath of Sergio Agüero. Spurs went on to leak 53 goals in the Premier League that season, an incredibly high number for a top six side, and the fourth highest in the division. That was despite the summer signings of Federico Fazio, Ben Davies and Michel Vorm. Fast forward 12 months, and not only did Pochettino’s newly shaped team obliterate everyone’s title favourites, they also managed to contain the imperious Argentine – who went on to score five against Newcastle only seven days later.
Whilst a lot can be attributed to the improved defensive shape and structure, Spurs have had good defenders in the past but still shipped goals. Moving slightly up the pitch, it seems the introduction of 21-year-old Dier has been a big reason in Spurs’ newly found defensive rigidity. Brought in from Sporting Lisbon for just under £4million in the summer of 2014, alongside the aforementioned Fazio, Davies and Vorm, Dier spent much of his first season covering for an injury hit Kyle Walker at right-back. Once Dier settled into the squad, he began appearing at centre back alongside the experienced, and back on board, Jan Vertonghen. The pair added an extra dynamism to the back four, with both capable of carrying the ball forwards but also their tough tackling, reading of the game and ability in the air.
However the signing of Toby Alderweireld in July 2015 suddenly put Dier’s position under threat – surely the Belgian would partner his fellow countryman, Vertonghen, at the heart of the defence? With the sales of defensive midfielders Benjamin Stambouli and Etienne Capoue – although it might be a tad kind to use ‘Capoue’ and ‘defensive’ in the same sentence – there was a gaping hole in Spurs’ midfield alongside Nabil Bentaleb. It was rumoured throughout the summer that Pochettino’s staff were looking at several defensive midfielders such as Axel Witsel, Victor Wanyama, Giannelli Imbula and Geoffrey Kondogbia. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, none of these moves materialised and Spurs fans were left scratching their heads over the midfield. Fortunately, Pochettino had a master plan up his sleeve and Dier was trialled in the holding midfield role during pre-season and even began the season at Manchester United next to Bentaleb. Injury and a slight dip in form for the latter meant that there were changes in the position next to Dier but as the games went on; the Cheltonian was cementing his place in the centre of midfield.
During the 2014-15 season, whilst Bentaleb and Ryan Mason both cemented their place in the midfield, neither are natural holding midfielders and thus Dier’s inclusion has been a revelation for the club. He has now played alongside Bentaleb, Mason, Tom Carroll and Dele Alli – who has also been an inspiration at White Hart Lane – this season and has settled into the role much quicker, and better, than anyone would have anticipated. The issue now for Tottenham is who comes in when Dier goes out? This weekend’s game against Liverpool will be the first game he will not feature in this season – due to his fifth yellow card of the season warranting him a one-match ban. Until the draw at Swansea, Dier had featured in all eight Premier League games, both Europa League matches and the League Cup defeat to…well, we all know whom. Moving on swiftly, the dilemma for Pochettino this weekend is who to start in the midfield pivot against a Liverpool side that will be fired up after the appointment of the incredibly likeable Jürgen Klopp who replaced a man that had became extremely unpopular amongst Spurs fans, Brendan Rodgers, in the Anfield hot seat.
Whilst Alli will more than likely continue to feature, Spurs will be missing Heung-min Son on the wings and Pochettino may play the game safe and put the 19 year old Englishman in the number 10 role rather than the centre of the park. If so, potential returns to fitness for Bentaleb and Mason* would be welcomed by the Spurs faithful, whilst Mousa Dembélé returned versus Swansea. Whilst none of the above are naturally holding players, Bentaleb has filled in when required and Mason has a reputation of being a tough tackler but also well disciplined in the centre of midfield. The timing of Dier’s suspension is not ideal, but Pochettino must decide whether to deploy Dembélé in the centre – where he has been proven to be very inconsistent – or go with the tried and tested Mason and Bentaleb pivot. Without Bentaleb or Mason, Spurs would be required to deploy an untested midfield partnership; the options being Dembele, Alli, Harry Winks and Carroll. Whilst injuries to Roberto Firmino, Christian Benteke, Danny Ings and Joe Gomez are positive signs for Spurs, the lack of steel in midfield may just hand Liverpool the advantage, even putting the occasion of the game aside. Liverpool have won their last five games against Spurs, with an aggregate score of 18-4 and Klopp’s first game might just be the catalyst for their re-birth, although the talk surrounding his Houdini-like ability to suddenly make Liverpool a top four team by May might just be hyperbolic at this stage.
Whichever midfield Pochettino opts for will have to be able to counter the threat of Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana. Pochettino will be aware of the dangers that Liverpool pose but will also look to impose Spurs’ much improved pressing style on the game. Spurs have outrun their opponents in each of their eight League games this season and whilst Klopp’s philosophy doesn’t differ very much from Pochettino’s, the Argentinian is much further ahead in the process of instilling his style than Klopp. Liverpool have been nothing short of awful in defence, Klopp’s first objective will be to sure his side up at the back – meaning the lack of time the German has had to implement his style might just work out in the Lilywhites’ favour. Saturday’s game promises to be an entertaining one, but much could be decided on how the sides line up.
*Article was written before the news that Mason and Bentaleb will both miss the game.