A lot has happened in the two weeks since Tottenham Hotspur last played a league match, and in many ways Sunday's match against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light may be the first chance we have to really see what Tottenham can do, and how they'll line up.
With Spurs' defense more or less settled, of particular and most immediate interest is the midfield. The additions of Son Heung-Min and Clinton N'Jie and the possible return of Christian Eriksen from injury means that there's a distinct chance Spurs will trot out a front six that is different to anything we've seen before.
But with Son able to play across the attacking band and Eriksen being an injury wild card, there are a lot of options. So what will Mauricio Pochettino do? Here are the Cartilage Free Captain masthead predictions, along with our reasoning.
Under most circumstances, I wouldn't expect to see Son Heung-Min slot directly into the starting lineup. With Toby Alderweireld the notable exception – and he had several weeks of preseason to work with the team – Pochettino tends to be pretty conservative when it comes to blooding in new additions to his lineup. Sonny's only been with the team for a little while, and some of that was spent on international duty with Korea. But I also don't think we can reasonably expect Eriksen to be 90 minutes fit so soon after coming back from injury, and Sonny's good enough that I think we'll see him get the start on Sunday.
Unfortunately, I think this also means that Dembele gets dropped, with Ryan Mason reprising his role against Everton in the #10 and Bentaleb pairing with Dier in the pivot. As much as I'd like to see Dembele put back into his defensive pressing #10 role against a crappy Sunderland defense, and as fluid as the attacking midfield band can be positionally, I think it's more likely that Mason will be able to FRAAB to his little heart's content, giving Chadli and Son the freedom to swap flanks as necessary. That puts more of the pressing duties on Bentaleb and Dier, but we know they both can do it. I can see Dembele (and possibly Eriksen) making late sub appearances though, depending on the scoreline.
A lot of this exercise is reading tea leaves on injuries. I'm betting on Eriksen taking another week to return, since Pochettino tends to wait on players to regain full fitness, but it's certainly possible he could be ready. He'll start if he is. I'm betting on Son because he's just too good to be stuck on the bench, and we need to get him minutes with the first team now in preparation for the big week (Palace, Arsenal, City) upcoming. Mason and Bentaleb are pick'em, but I'll take Mason as the more attacking option against Sunderland with Bentaleb picking up DM duties on Thursday and rotation continuing through the season. I'd like to see Kieran Trippier play at RB, but I don't think that is happening any time too soon given Pochettino's optimist qualities.
Finally, the exact positions of the players in the AM band are nearly impossible to pick and hardly fixed. Chadli should be playing on the wing but has spend a lot of time in the center. Dembele is good in the center but has played more on the wing. Son is best at LW but can play anywhere and be really good, due to underlying really really good ness. I'm putting Son and Chadli at goal-scoring wing positions with Dembele as forward destroyer and Mason and Dier and others playing long diagonals out to the scorers. But who knows really.
I can't tell whether or not Poch really loves Ryan Mason or if he is just giving him early season opportunities to prove himself. With Bentaleb and Eriksen vying for the two spots that he is capable of playing, Mason's competition is formidable. He has played quite well though, and while he has not gotten that penultimate goal yet, his performances merit the start in the center of the park.
While I don't think that Son will start, he should be on the damn pitch so I am throwing him out left in his favored spot. If Tottenham's roster is healthy, I really think that this is our optimal lineup for the attacking three. The potentially controversial selection in this setup is Mousa Dembélé, yet I think he is the perfect guy for what the team needs. Drowned in a sea of awful goals against last season, Dembélé holds possession, provides extra steel in midfield, and can eliminate defenders going forward. The game is calmer, safer, and more fluid when he is involved and, for this, he is a first eleven selection. Further, if we are either level or behind in the scoreline in the sixtieth minute, a creative player like Lamela, a goalscorer like Chadli, or a speedster like N'Jie coming on for Démbéle can radically change the side. I don't think Mousa brings the same impact to the team as a substitute, thus another reason to start him out wide.
Center midfield is fairly easy to predict: Dier has been excellent in a more defensive minded role, and Mason starts ahead of Bentaleb, who sustained a mysterious hand injury over the international break.
Chadli is almost certain to start in the attacking band, but picking the other two starters is more difficult. Eriksen is likely still unfit, and Dembele's health is uncertain as well (though he did claim his injury was not serious). He and Chadli have played well this season, but I think Pochettino will look to add some pace to the attack by adding Son. Otherwise, we might see Dele Alli, who has been terrific in a few cameo appearances this season.
I did some thinking on the defensive midfield pairing and I think this makes the most sense. I like seeing Mason coming off the bench around the 55th-60th minute and moving forward in the attack and allowing Dier to be the destroyer of worlds in front of the back four. Bentaleb's vision and passing trumps Mason's ability to move forward for me, though I could see an argument for either of them to pair up with Dier. Mason has put in some solid shifts, but Dier-Bentaleb gives us the best pairing.
With our attacking front, Kane is obvious up top, so let's not talk about that. Eriksen is best at the 10, so he has to be central. Son is simply too good to have on the bench. If he's fit and ready, then he needs to be on the pitch. With Lamela putting in poor performances, he's relegated to the bench. Dembele has done a solid job of holding down the fort, but while his possession and strength are great, I believe what hurts him is that final pass into the box. He doesn't look for it nearly as often as others, so he's odd man out in this. Chadli has to be out left. I know that there are times that he disappears, but when he's on, he's either feeding into the box or he's scoring the goals himself. Until those dry up, he has to be in the attacking front.
What do you think? Add your lineup predictions in the comments.