With a new manager in a World Cup year, it's difficult to figure out who's first choice for Tottenham Hotspur. Mauricio Pochettino has had plenty of friendlies, but he hasn't had his full squad available for any of them. The most recent game, against Schalke, was the first and only game that featured players who had been to the World Cup knockout stages. This means that who starts in a handful of spots is anyone's guess.
We're going to make a case for the most wide-open spots, starting with the more box-to-box of the midfielders in a double pivot. We're also going to do a similar debate about the more defensive pivot midfielder -- Sandro, Etienne Capoue and Nabil Bentaleb will be the participants in that debate -- and the center forward spot.
First up -- Mousa Dembele, Paulinho or Lewis Holtby?
The case for Mousa Dembele, by Edward F.
In the periods where he's not been hurt (or out of favour as a result of missing time with injuries), Mousa Dembele has consistently been one of Tottenham's best all-round players over the past two seasons. Last term, the Belgian averaged around 2.3 tackles and 2.4 dribbles per game, completed 91 percent of all of his attempted passes, and managed more clearances than all of his midfield counterparts except for Sandro. These stats summarize quite neatly the kind of player Dembele is- a true midfield pitbull who, for all of the disruption that his Spurs career has suffered, continues to show remarkable adeptness across the disciplines of retrieving, holding on to and accurately releasing the ball. From box to box, Dembele has shown for a second year in a row that he can be relied upon to bring relentless energy, strength and composure.
It is true that Dembele didn't do much to address the key criticisms levelled at him in his first season this past year- in particular, he failed to demonstrate that he can serve as a particularly creative force in the final third, and his habit of sometimes slowing attacks by dawdling on the ball remains a frustration (though his ability to participate in counterattacks is often excessively downplayed). However, if Pochettino is strategizing this season around a pivot which comprises a more defensive player and a presser, and if he is satisfied with the chance-creation abilities of more advanced midfielders, then he absolutely must ensure that Dembele sees the pitch frequently this season.
The case for Paulinho, by Kevin McCauley
I've made it pretty clear on this website and Wheeler Dealer Radio that I'm not Paulinho's biggest fan, but none of this site's writers are big Paulinho fans. I'm not sure anyone would argue for starting him in the first game of the season, or at all until everyone else is either injured or playing extremely poorly. But he cost £17m, he was first choice last year and he's probably not getting sold. So I'll suck it up and try to make a case for him.
Despite giving the ball away a lot, finishing poorly and not offering a lot defensively, Paulinho did score 8 goals from central midfield last season. That's nothing to sneeze at, and he probably should have scored a lot more. Our own Michael Caley's stats indicate that he underperformed expected goals, and Paulinho's previous finishing for Corinthians and Brazil suggests that he is better in front of goal than he showed last season. It's very possible that Paulinho could look like total crap for most of the minutes he plays, but still score 15 goals.
He's also not going to get any worse. The degree to which Paulinho hurt Tottenham Hotspur last year with bad turnovers, crappy positioning and worse tackling really cannot be overstated. He was Scott Parker levels of absolutely abysmal. And yet, despite being abysmal, he continued to get starts and draw praise from quite a few people, mostly because he runs a lot. It's likely that last season was his absolute floor. Again, he was really awesome for Corinthians and Brazil before we bought him, so he probably doesn't actually suck.
There's a world class talent somewhere inside of Paulinho. Maybe Mauricio Pochettino is the main to bring it out of him.
The case for Lewis Holtby, by Lennon's Eyebrow
Lewis Holtby's future may lie deeper in the midfield than we expected. Pochettino has shown in pre-season a penchant for pairing his more defensive-minded midfielder with a counterpart who can not only press, but also distribute the ball effectively.
Holtby's willingness to chase down and harry opposition players is well-noted, and his ankle-biting nature looks perfectly suited for the high-tempo midfield Poche is developing. Moreover, he provides a vast array of passing options, from short to long, ambitious or simple, Holtby is easily more comfortable distributing the ball than either Dembele and Paulinho. And while some of his more ambitious chips and flicks don't always come off, he's the best player on Spurs to crack open a stubborn defense from deep or set the team off on a quick counter.