Do Tottenham lack the midfield power to win the title?
As Matchweek 1 approaches in just two short weeks, and as the transfer window is in the proverbial final third,
Mauricio Pochettino finds himself with an absurdly overloaded roster in the midfield. Let me clarify a bit: Poch is not overloaded in the sense that Spurs are three deep at every midfield position. Rather, he is overloaded in the midfield in that not all of these lads will be seeing time with the first team in 16/17.
Several will not vie for a spot on the team sheet at all… Starting XI or on Poch’s bench. With the transfer of Marseilles’ Nicolas N’Koulou all but sealed at the time of this writing, it’s clearly time for the manager and the chairman to move some bodies, unload some dead weight, get future starlets some first team experience elsewhere. Difficult decisions in many cases.
While Spurs are sure to shine in the attacking end of the midfield, there are some gaps defensively that certainly be addressed as the transfer window closes.
A third, more-nimble striker would be a nice get to add an option with pace up top to support Harry Kane and/or Vincent Janssen.
Some cover for Eric Dier is critical, should he accumulate too many yellow cards (or suffer from injury). Adding Victor Wanyama was very positive progress, especially with Mousa Dembélé serving out his suspension. Who else, however, can Spurs rely on in terms of a defensive-minded midfielder, or, in a pinch, provide cover at center back?
Let’s take a look at the options at midfield on the First Team and the around the Development Squad, and make some predictions on the future of these lads. Loan out some young talent to get them first team experience? Take reasonable offers for players that don’t fit Poch’s style of play? Keep a stable of talent with the U21 squad that become available when necessary?
We won’t talk much about the likes of Luke Amos or Cy Goddard just yet. Casual fans may have heard their names before, and they will likely remain in the Academy and continue to develop as U21s.Filip Lesnick and Grant Ward both had productive, meaningful loan spells last season, and they are as likely to be loaned again as they are to stay with the U21 side.
Let’s turn our focus instead to the footballers that we’ve seen on the pitch over the last few years, and, in some cases, have appeared with the First Team in League Play, Cup Play, Europe and in friendlies (including the International Champions Cup (ICC)). There’s not enough room on the internet to talk about everyone, so let’s hit the highlights: Nabil Bentaleb is clearly not in Pochettino’s plan. Transfer gossip has him moving to La Liga, although his agent has expressed his desire to stay in England. Probably to prove a point, although I think his point is irrelevant.
Nader Chadli, who had some brief moments of brilliance under Tim Sherwood, has not been in form and was relegated mostly to appearances as a substitute for Pochettino, making only ten starts (19 appearances off the bench) in the Premier League in 15/16. After being selecting for the Starting XI in Spurs first seven matches, he would only
make three more PL starts for Tottenham. Time to admit defeat and move on.
Alex Pritchard, also clearly not in Poch’s plan, is free to leave. I think that says about everything that needs to be said about his future with the club.
Tommy Carroll is the player that we all want to love, but just doesn’t rank or perform highly enough to compete for a spot with the First Team. He’s undersized and cannot yet compete on the big stage. Look for Carroll to be sent away on loan or move to a Championship side where he can make a contribution, and not be a liability.
Harry Winks is on the verge of earning a spot with the First Team, but he is not quite there yet. I expect he will stay with the Development Squad and be on the bench for a limited number of competitive matches, but I’d imagine his Premier League time will be negligible. A loan here would be good for his continued development, but I think he
Ryan Mason is about as hot or cold as one player could be. Some days, Mason looks like he should be in the Starting XI on a regular basis. On others, he looks like he is lost on the pitch – dead on his feet both on and off the ball. He’s just as prone to make a brilliant tackle as he is to make a reckless one defensively. He’s also one
of those players you don’t mind seeing having a shot from distance. Mason is likely to be sought after by a handful of teams in the Premier League and could fetch a reasonable transfer fee should the Club wish to entertain offers. My sense is that a higher than market transfer price tag will be set, and that Mason will remain with the Club, albeit in a reduced role with the depth ahead of him.
William Miller, the teenage trifecta (part actor, part center-forward and part false 9 as an CAM), was impressive during the ICC and is one of the many shining future stars on the Development Squad. While I think a loan is in order to get him First Team minutes, I can see him in Poch’s plans sometime during the 16/17 campaign.
Josh Onomah is young, raw, and quite talented. I do believe he is valuable to someone, I’m just not certain it’s with Pochettino come August. He made 19 appearances for Spurs in 15/16, 11 of which were FA Cup and Europa League matches. His minutes during the ICC are likely to garner attention from other Clubs, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him move on a loan to gain valuable First Team experience. In the future, Onomah is a First Team regular for Spurs.
Mousa Dembélé has been hailed as the best “box to box midfielder in Europe” by a CIES Football Observatory study, and who can argue with that? Dembélé’s absence for the final two matches of the 15/16 season cost Spurs a 2nd place finish about their North London rivals, and his remaining four games on suspension could make the early season fixtures a bit choppy for Spurs. Dembélé can and does do it all from box to box. He is vicious and precise in possession, passes with a high success rate, creates chances on attack and defends with vigor. Obviously, he also “defends” a bit recklessly which put his side at a distinct disadvantage at the end of the 15/16 season, but I wouldn’t expect Mousa to lose a moment of playing time upon his return.
Eric Dier is truly in a class by himself. A center back by trade, he was the glue on the defensive side of Spurs midfield, and was one of just three shining Spurs stars for England during the Euros (Walker and Rose were also spectacular). Dier adds versatility in front of a very capable back four, and can also be used as cover for Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld if needed. He’s a stopper, a menace on set pieces – both on offense and defense – and really adds a maturity to the squad that belies his age. His style of play is well-suited to Pochettino’s, and to me was one of the three most impactful players for Spurs in 15/16 (along with Christian Eriksen and Hugo Lloris).
Heung-Min Son is also a very capable midfielder who looks to fight for First Team minutes in the Premier League. With Erik Lamela, Dele Alli, Eriksen and potentially N’Koulou all capable of (and valuable) playing out wide, Son will feature more often in the Champions League and the FA Cup than he will in the Premier League. As he continues to acclimate to English football – which he has done remarkably well thus far – his value to the Club will increase exponentially and his Premier League minutes will rise. His impact on the Club may actually be greater while he is on the bench, as weird as that may sound. His presence and his ability as an impact player, particularly off the bench, have helped step up Lamela’s game. The combination of Pochettino and Son have really had a dramatic impact on Lamela.
Dele Alli was signed by Spurs in February of 2015, but loaned back to MK Dons for the remained of that season. Upon his debut, he burst onto the First Team quickly, making his first start on 13 September at Sunderland, and never looked back. Despite cutting his season short, and also contributing to Spurs falling short of their Top 2 finish after picking up a suspension for gut punching West Ham’s Claudio Yacob at the Lane, Alli’s impact was strong from the start. With 9 goals and nine assists in his debut season, he was named the PFA Young Player of the Year. Alli is the fourth Tottenham starlet to earn this award in five seasons (Kyle Walker 11/12, Gareth Bale 12/13, and Kane 14/15).
Alli is young, strong and powerful – although a bit reckless defensively – but he’ll learn to control his emotions, mature and continue to be a First Team selection for Pochettino for years to come. The crew that adopted me and some friends after the final home match at White Hart Lane in May – the Jersey Spurs Supporters – supplied the Carlsbergs at Bill Nicholson’s Pub and we all sang along: “We’ve got Alli… Dele Alli… I just don’t think you understand. He only cost 5 mil, he’s better than Özil, we’ve got Dele Alli!”
Christian Eriksen, who earned Spurs Player of the Year award for the 13/14 and 15/16 seasons, is the heart of Spurs midfield. He was second in the Premier League in assists (13 – a dramatic growth from the two he had in 14/15), delivered 146 crosses and was over the ball 129 times on corners. While he found the back of the net just sixtimes in 15/16 in the Premier League (down from ten in 14/15), he created 114 chances and had a staggering 81% passing accuracy rate (1228 of 1516) – of which 71% were forward passes. He can control pace, is generally graceful on the ball and can play allthree forward midfield positions.
Statistically, he was strongest on the left side in 15/16, but he can play all three positons. Eriksen is at his best when he has a bit of space (easier to achieve out wide than in a more central role), as it allows him to be more creative and create more chances. I’m most excited to see what Eriksen’s role might look like in a 4-4-2, should Poch play Kane and Janssen together up top, but I could also easily see Eriksen taking on the role of a Barcelona-style False 9 in a hybrid4-3-3. Again, pure speculation here, but in many cases, one could argue already that he actually fills the role of a Number 10.
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