Not many would have predicted before it began but Eric Dier appears to have solidified his place in Tottenham’s midfield as we roll onto the fifth week of the new Premier League season. There was a significant lack of steel in Spurs’ central midfield last term and head coach Mauricio Pochettino desperately needed to shift things up to offer better protection to his back four. Only six other clubs in the league last season conceded as many goals as Spurs, despite them finishing in fifth place.
The club was linked with several midfielders as the transfer window wound down but the gaffer turned instead to Eric Dier. Dier signed for Tottenham last summer for just £4m and without a whole lot of fanfare. He had a promising first season and soon became first choice centre-half alongside Jan Vertonghen, while also showing his flexibility by filling in at right back when injuries struck the squad. Strong, tough, smart and tidy on the ball, Dier showed exactly what he had to offer. There is certainly a potential star underneath that rugged, no-nonsense exterior.
As a 20-year-old playing his first season in England’s top flight there was always going to be growing pains and that’s all expected to allow a talented young player to develop. But the club clearly felt they couldn’t wait – they needed an instant improvement. They moved quickly in the summer to clear the deadweight, added depth in the form of Kevin Wimmer and Kieran Trippier and most importantly added a player who would instantly command a starting role by signing Belgian international Toby Alderweireld.
Alderweireld has already justified his signing, bringing not only immense defensive ability but a composure and leadership that was sorely lacking. He has also allowed partner Jan Vertonghen to focus on his game and absolve him of most of his organizational responsibilities, something which has hampered his game in the past.
Instead of making do with him on the bench, Pochettino has given Dier a role as a defensive minded midfielder in the double pivot. Pochettino is not afraid to put his trust in young players, doing so with Dier last term and indeed this season even more so. “He has played well in midfield and was comfortable in that position. Eric’s skill is he can play in different positions on the pitch,” he said.
Dier has played the role before at former club Sporting Lisbon, he possesses the skill set to do well but so far has exceeded expectations. This was exemplified by a dominating performance against Everton in which he kept Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku quiet.
He is performing a job Spurs need him to in order for them to become a more complete side. If he can keep up his current form in the role, the club may have found a long term solution for that position. Pochettino appears to be looking to give him as much time on the pitch to develop as possible. “He can also play at centre-back, and it is good for him because he is young and he improves a lot. When you play in different positions you add to your game and so gain better tools to be a better player,” he said.
The next urgent question facing Pochettino is who should be partnering him. While Dier will be tasked more with winning the ball and shielding the back four, a more forward thinking partner for him is needed. The two players who have done so this season and look equipped to fill that spot are Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb. They will need to fulfill their defensive duties and press the opposition, but be more committed to making things happen on the offensive side of things than Dier would.
By analyzing their performances in the minutes each has played this season, you can see what they both bring to the table. Going forward it is Mason who offers more. Mason plays more forward passes (34) and plays them further (20m) each game than Bentaleb (29, 18m) does. This season Mason (85%) has completed significantly more of his overall passes than the Algerian (79%) as well.
In terms of creation for the attacking four in front of them, Mason creates almost double the chances (1.95) than his Algerian teammate (1.05) every ninety minutes. Statistics for key passes are identical as chance creation for both players. The Englishman also gets more of his shots (60%) on target than Bentaleb (50%).
But on the defensive end, it is Bentaleb who reigns supreme. He wins more tackles (0.53), duels in the middle of the park (43.75%), nabs more interceptions (1.05) and blocks more shots (1.05) each game than his former midfield partner. Mason’s tackles won (0.32), duels won (33.33%), interceptions (0.65) and blocks (0.65) per 90 minutes pale in comparison.
Each player offers something a little different to the side. Mason late runs into the box or booming runs in behind the defence are something this Spurs side sorely lacks and gives them a different dimension. He is more inventive with his passing, even if it may seem a little over ambitious at times. However, he often doesn’t have the legs to last a full game and that isn’t desirable for someone who wants to be picked on the team sheet each week. His defensive game, while not dreadful, certainly lacks.
Bentaleb may not have the creativity that Mason possesses but he’s still intelligent with his passing. He may not be creating clear cut chances for his teammates but he looks to shift the ball quickly high up the pitch when he wins it. His silky passing, dribbling and touch on the ball are a perfect foil for his tough, aggressive work off of it. He arguably has a higher ceiling to grow than Mason. But right now, is he good enough going forward to demand a starting place?
Eric Dier may have just filled a very important hole in Tottenham’s team and he was rewarded with a new contract, extending his stay at the club until 2020. One problem may have been solved but Pochettino needs to decide who will partner him; Ryan Mason or Nabil Bentaleb. Both offer different styles to the role and it’s up to Pochettino to now decide who will command that spot for the future. We may just get a hint come Sunday at Sunderland.
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