The Curious Case of Spurs Defence

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Of all the enigmatic aspects of what could still be a fine Tottenham side—Roberto Soldado and Erik Lamela being two chief examples—one still puzzling question is the precise quality—or lack thereof of our back four. And as a corollary, if and when a clear back four will ever emerge.

To begin with we have a world class goalkeeper. Two or three times a season he will wander too far and pay the price of a cheap goal conceded or an ever cheaper penalty, but by and large Lloris plays his angles, reacts quickly and is seemingly worth a goal saved every two or three games. So if our defence—and midfield—were stout, Spurs would be among the leaders in the Premiership in terms of overall goals conceded.

And we’re not. Part of the reason lies in a midfield still struggling to incorporate their manager’s preferred style of play or, perhaps more harshly, too often lax in their willingness to defend or run back with the same vigor they will press forward. Eriksen-Dembele-Capoue-Lamela have all been guilty of either or both of these offenses—yet all have either demonstrated more commitment recently or, at the least, are pressing more effectively in the other side’s half to prevent a breakout. Aaron Lennon in particular showed a lot of box to box effort yesterday—and for all his failings, Paulinho generally delivers they type of work rate his teammates should emulate.

Yet the holes in the back, and the ineffective pairings are unquestionably our biggest problem areas, yet I can see a glimmer of some real improvement. The Arsenal game produced a stern defensive effort, led by captain Younis Kaboul. Lately the skipper has regressed to the form we have seen far too often the past two years, and one wonders if a) Poch regrets his choice of captaincy and b) if he will ever make the preferred Back Four grouping again. But beyond Kaboul the choices are beginning to appear more promising.

Jan Vertonghen, whatever personal and internal weaknesses have plagued him and cost what seemed from the outside to be a likely captain’s role, is still an excellent center half defender. With the presence of Danny Rose and Ben Davies, any more unpopular placements on the wing should be limited to the gravest of emergencies. Rose and Davies each offer something of value though one wishes they had more of the other’s skills as well—Rose can attack and break down a defence, particularly in the more narrow confines of the Lane, stifling our middle; Davies can defend more consistently if lacking the verve and pace to pass the opposition right-back and cross.

So our left side appears to be pretty settled. As to the right back situation, Dier is obviously a fish out of water, and Naughton, while he has grown into a capable defender, offers little of the offensive capability many of the top EPL sides feature in a right back. But two dynamic options are tantalizingly close at hand—Kyle Walker and DeAndre Yedlin. A post Boxing Day reality of two right backs with immense pace—Walker as the chief selection option, and Yedlin as his understudy for Cup and/or Europa competition—would make a substantial upgrade over what we have witnessed the past three months.

The right half situation is more vexing. Fazio? Lots of bluster but not a lot of speed and several crucial mistakes and/or red cards. Chiriches? He looked very solid for most of the match vs. Partizan, yet there was at least one trademark giveaway that fortunately didn’t amount to much, and the one time he got frisky and tried to penetrate the Serbian defence, it led almost immediately to a counter where he was caught upfield and a better (read: most of our EPL opponents) attack force would almost certainly have scored. The real question, I suspect, is whether Dier is experienced enough to trust in this role, or, I suppose, at some point after the New Year whether Poch simply throws him in the water and sees if he will sink or swim.

I seriously doubt whether a complete combination of Walker-Yedlin-Naughton-Dier-Fazio-Chiriches-Kaboul-Vertonghen-Rose-Davies will all remain on this team beyond the January transfer window. One of Naughton and Chiriches are seemingly the most likely to leave, and if the rumours of a Van Rhijn purchase are at all founded, both might be sent packing.

Yet a Rose/Davies—Vertonghen-Dier/Fazio—Walker/Yedlin back four might actually thrive and actually reach the precise mixture of defensive soundness and offensive thrust the Premier League demands. This is one work in progress I am curious to see play out.

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