Can Spurs’ defenders withstand the pressure of the fixture list? | JASON CAIRNDUFF/Getty Images
One of the oft-repeated observations made by (rather hopeful) followers of Jose Mourinho’s current Tottenham side is that they bear some kind of resemblance to the Portuguese’s treble-winning 2010 Inter Milan side.
It has to be said, if you squint a bit it is vaguely tenable for the most part – you have the ultra-dynamic front three (when Gareth Bale can play more than 60 minutes), you have a solid midfield which supports the joie de vivre of Wesley Sneijder/ an out-of-position Tanguy Ndombele, you have an experienced elite goalkeeper, and the Madrid Maicon – except at left-back – in Sergio Reguilon.
But one of the most crucial components, as Mourinho himself says, of that legendary Champions League winning side, was Lucio, signed from Bayern Munich in 2009 after Ricardo Carvalho proved to be unattainable.
⚫? Jose Mourinho explains the process behind @Inter_en signing Lucio in the summer of 2009 and why the Brazilian defender was instrumental in the club’s treble-winning campaign. pic.twitter.com/AKngGqWIkQ
— The Coaches’ Voice (@CoachesVoice) June 20, 2019
Mourinho explained his desire for Lucio in terms of transforming the tactical outlook for his team, the final piece of a defensive jigsaw which would allow the Nerazzurri to play on the front foot.
He told The Coaches’ Voice that despite possessing a glut of excellent veteran centre-backs like Marco Materazzi and Ivan Cordoba, he wanted not just to be adept at a low block, but to push his defensive line forward 20 metres to free up the team’s fearsome attacking potential and get them on the next level.
When the players in front of that defence are Esteban Cambiasso and Sneijder, buying a quicker centre-back who can hold a higher line makes a lot of sense, and, as Mourinho indicates, can help transform a resilient team into a truly dominant one.
Yet despite Mourinho’s reputation as the tsar of central defenders, as the man who nurtured not just Lucio and Carvalho but Sergio Ramos, John Terry and Raphael Varane, he has struggled to replicate this notion of leading from the back at Spurs.
Mourinho has worked with some of the best centre-backs of all time | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Spurs’ defence, on the face of it, has done a more-than-OK job. In fact, they’ve done a brilliant job – they’ve gone from being the rabble that lost 3-1 to Sheffield United in one of last season’s worst capitulations, to the joint-best (tied with four others) in the league. In their last three league games, they have conceded just the one goal.
However, what is notable ahead of a run which sees them play Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Leicester in the space of less than a month (with various Europa League games scattered throughout), is that they have been slightly fortunate to possess such a strong record, with evidence that the centre-backs in particular are neither wholly suited to a low block nor a high line.
Any appraisal of Spurs’ defensive options becomes a lot easier if we talk strengths, and make no mistake, these are not amateurs that we’re talking about. Eric Dier has matured as a defender under the tutelage of Mourinho and is the definition of ‘solid’ – a physical, towering centre-back who relishes throwing himself at the ball – just look at his sensational goalline clearance from this season’s match against West Brom.
Dier has been reintegrated into the first team under Mourinho | MATT DUNHAM/Getty Images
Likewise, age hasn’t robbed Toby Alderweireld of his excellent positional awareness, while Davinson Sanchez remains full of promise – those who can remember his flawless display against England in the last World Cup will recall that his recovery pace is unbelievable, while his ability to time a last-ditch challenge is not dissimilar to those at the top level.
You have confidence in the first-choice pairing of Dier and Alderweireld in particular to dominate the less high-profile attackers in the Premier League, and against Burnley, West Brom and Brighton they were so good you could hardly notice them. Dier in particular seems to relish the opportunity to face off against bustling attackers like Karlan Grant, Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood, and many triumphant Spurs fans have declared him a player reborn.
However, there can be no doubt that this has been a remarkably simple run, and it only really proves that Spurs’ defence excels against largely procedural attacking sequences where the Lilywhites can be relatively relaxed when it comes to circulating the ball out of defence.
Sanchez is a player bursting with untapped potential | Etsuo Hara/Getty Images
But that act of progressing the ball has been a great source of discomfort for Spurs against other sides, and it’s likely to see their defence under increased scrutiny as they attempt to find a way to win against better sides.
To explain the importance of this, we now need to look at the weaknesses of Spurs’ three main centre-backs (while not much has been seen from Japhet Tanganga thanks to a stress fracture keeping him out of the start of the season, the early indications are that he has a bit to learn before he can become a regular starter).
Alderweireld’s physicality is more or less non-existent at this stage – compared to his two colleagues he wins a measly amount of aerial duels at 52.9% (i.e. he is only just more likely to win one than to lose one), and it leads to matches like Spurs’ early-season encounter with Southampton where he was utterly vulnerable to chipped balls over the top from the full-back or central midfielder.
Alderweireld has looked less than sharp in the air this season | GLYN KIRK/Getty Images
Likewise, it is hugely disappointing that Sanchez has not improved at all under a defensive mastermind like Mourinho, instead stagnating hugely. Because the Colombian tries to rely on his pace, he is often caught high up the pitch (as in Spurs’ 3-2 loss to Wolves last season), while his upper-body strength has seen him come off second best against a range of physical strikers (such as Joelinton last season).
Finally, the Renaissance man at the back in Eric Dier is understated as a concern in these upcoming fixtures. He is the perfect player in terms of making blocks and winning aerial duels (he has won the second-most in Spurs’ side, with Matt Doherty a surprising gold medallist, per FbRef).
But against sides where he is pressed in his own defensive third, and where he has to face ultra-mobile, individually-brilliant players, he has frequently fallen short. From his appalling back pass to Salah in the pulsating 2-2 draw against Liverpool in 2018, to his decision to bring down Paul Pogba in the box with Spurs holding a comfortable lead over Manchester United earlier this year, to his gift of a pass to help Belgium open the scoring as recently as Sunday night, he has a habit of looking slightly overwhelmed in open matches where his pace and ball-playing ability are required.
Spurs could be set up to fail in big games | Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
At present, Spurs can’t get the ball frequently enough into the feet of their attackers to dominate matches, but against your Burnleys and Brightons they can just impressively hold the fort and wait for Harry Kane or Son Heung-min to do something amazing.
There ought to be some sort of balance found between Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso to remedy this, but in the meantime the concern is that the opposition can spend an awful lot of time in their natural shape and with the ball at their feet, and therefore an awful lot of time creating chances of their own.
So against someone like Liverpool or Manchester City, who at relatively full strength will be able to create almost relentless pressure, Spurs realistically have two options – to sit back, aim to force a tight game, and hope that an error-prone defence doesn’t, well, err…or push up the defensive line with players that are only half suited to such a move.
FT | ??????? 1-0 ??
It’s now 7️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ minutes since we conceded a competitive goal. #TogetherStronger pic.twitter.com/I0ubvX3b9l
— Wales ??????? (@Cymru) November 15, 2020
There could be a solution, but it’s an especially optimistic one. In Joe Rodon Spurs have just signed a player who is part of one of international football’s most solid defensive units, and watching him face off against an in-form Danny Ings against England you could see that he may well resemble the two-way defender which Spurs would quite fancy at the moment.
He’s strong and tall, excellent in the air and positionally, tracked Ings and Jack Grealish’s runs effectively and, to cap it off, is an excellent distributor of the ball, completing 98% of his 47 attempted passes in the recent win against Bulgaria (per Sofascore), He is also deceptively quick – supposedly faster even than Dan James at Swansea, according to The Athletic.
Whether this promising cocktail of attributes will be enough in the Premier League, or whether Mourinho even has that sort of confidence in Rodon, are different questions. But if the Spurs title bubble looks in danger of bursting, watch out for things to get shaken up at the back.