January is often associated with the arrival of new faces, and while Levy has gone out and brought Lucas Moura to the club, it could be the return of two current Spurs players that proves to be the most important factor in the club’s fight for a Champions League place.
Victor Wanyama and Toby Alderweireld have both been side lined for the majority of the season, but with the pair both resuming full training, it appears as though they’ll both be back available for Spurs very soon.
Wanyama, who picked up a knee injury in pre-season, was quickly brought back into the side for Tottenham’s home tie against Chelsea in August. However, an off-the-pace performance from the Kenyan suggested he was rushed back too soon, and he subsequently missed four months of action, before returning in early January as a substitute in Spurs’ 2-0 win over Swansea. Despite returning nearly a month ago, it is clear Pochettino has tried to avoid making the same mistake as last time as he gradually edges Wanyama back into the first XI.
The midfielder’s return could be key for Spurs, who have struggled to find a consistent midfield pairing this season, with injuries to Harry Winks and Mousa Dembele weakening this area further. Wanyama was almost ever-present for Spurs last season, missing just two league games in his debut season for the club. His physicality and aggressive ball-winning style made him a fixture in the Spurs side, as his screening of the defence often got the best out of his midfield partner Dembele, who used the protection Wanyama offered as a green light to venture forward on the ball.
Wanyama very quickly made the defensive midfield role his own, after much discussion over whether he’ll simply be used as cover for Eric Dier, who performed well in that role in the 15-16 season. It became apparent that the specialist ability of Wanyama in that position was preferred to Dier’s brawny, but inexperienced efforts there as Pochettino reverted him back to a central defender, operating mainly in a back three. However, due to Wanyama’s lengthy spell out, Dier has seen a lot more time in midfield.
Despite being a competent defensive midfielder, Dier has struggled to match the dominant performances that Wanyama produced last season. Defensively he has been okay. He doesn’t win (or attempt) as many tackles as Wanyama, but he reads passes and shots well, making a similar amount of interceptions and blocking more shots per game than the Kenyan (these stats are slightly skewed by Dier’s minutes as a Centre Back, but in midfield their figures are similar). His height and strength also mean he’s slightly more likely to win his aerial duels, making him a fairly decent midfield anchor.
However, what Wanyama offers in addition to the defensive side of his game is a natural ability on the ball. Put his tenacity and power to one side, and you still get a midfielder who can contribute to the play. The same can’t be said about Dier. One of the biggest issues surrounding Spurs this season has been their build-up play. Tottenham are a side that often look to break teams down through patiently measured passing patterns. They often create a chance off the back of lengthy spells of possession, involving most of team, keeping the ball methodically and waiting for the right time to ‘pounce’ via a cross or through ball. This is where Wanyama really outshines Dier.
Dier has often been criticised for his sluggishness on the ball. He takes longer to pick his passes than most midfielders, and ends up taking the safe option far too often for Tottenham’s system. With Dier in midfield, very few passes break the opposition lines, and quite a lot end up going backwards. Now this, at times, is necessary for a team that looks to dominate possession, but so is risk taking, and we don’t see Dier do this enough. Wanyama however, moves the ball on quicker, and will look to either drive forward with the ball, or pass it forward much sooner than Dier. This gives Spurs’ play a lot more zip and poignancy, giving them more chance to break down teams defending in a deep block, as they often will against Tottenham. Wanyama offers a slightly higher pass completion rate than Dier and creates over twice as many chances as the Englishman, making him the better fit for the defensive midfield role at Spurs.
The other area in which Spurs are underperforming compared to previous seasons is in defence. Tottenham have arguably had the best defence in the league over the last two seasons, however the same can’t be said this year. They ended last season’s campaign having conceded just 26 league goals, seven fewer than the Premier League champions Chelsea, however this season they’ve conceded 22 goals already, with 14 games still to play. An undeniable factor in this has been Toby Alderweireld’s hamstring injury.
Arguably the League’s most consistent defender, the Belgian picked up an unfortunate injury in Tottenham’s 3-1 win over Madrid, missing 14 League games as a result. This sparked plenty of worry amongst Spurs fans, as the side’s win percentage drops by around 10% when the 28 year old doesn’t feature.
Starting the season in a slightly new role(on the right of a back three, as opposed to the centre), due to the arrival of Davinson Sanchez has freed up Toby to play slightly more adventurously, whilst Sanchez has taken up the defensive workload of the central role. Alderweireld was now more involved in Tottenham’s build up play, getting on the ball frequently, passing more and creating more chances than last season. This was a role that complimented his ball-playing ability, in the same way it suits compatriot Jan Vertonghen on the left, and looked to be an extremely functional back three.
However, Pochettino struggled to correctly address the issue that arose upon Alderweireld’s injury, replacing him with Dier as the Right Central Defender at first, but he swapped his and Sanchez’s positions a couple of times, before deciding on ditching the back 3 altogether, moving Dier into midfield.
As was the case last season, Tottenham’s win percentage has dropped since Alderweireld’s injury, winning 60% of the 10 league games he played, but just 53% of the following 15. The defence hasn’t looked as organised with him not in the team, and they’ve began to struggle with defending set pieces and long balls, two areas in which they were fairly comfortable over the last two seasons. Toby’s positioning and organisational play has been sorely missed, and unparalleled reading of the game will be warmly welcomed back into a Spurs defence that has struggled of late.
Not only will his return be a defensive boost, but it will also have a big influence on the way Spurs attack too. His superb range of passing and his trademark cross-field balls usually have a big impact on matches, especially on the movement of Son and Alli, who take up different positions and make more challenging runs when Alderweireld has the ball. Not only does his solid, defensive presence help the team, but his creative talents also give the side another dimension, one that they’ve lacked for most of this season.
So, Spurs may have signed a pacey, skillful Brazil international from one of Europe’s biggest clubs last month, but it may be the addition of two familiar faces that determine the rest of their season. In what has been a stop-start season for Spurs, can the return of their spine get them going once again?