Over the past six weeks, the rumbles amongst Tottenham's online fanbase have been growing: Christian Eriksen, the club's top playmaker and arguably last season's best player, is in a slump. After a hot start to the season that included a brace of free kick goals in a draw against Swansea, Tottenham's Danish playmaker wasn't scoring nearly as many goals as last season and his set piece delivery, particularly from free kicks taken just outside the box, had fallen off slightly in recent weeks.
One hopes that his critics will give it a rest after his impressive brace against Sunderland last weekend. Sadly, it is far more likely that Eriksen's detractors will not learn their lesson and so, should we see another long goal draught for Tottenham's creative attacker, we will likely once again see the chatter start up about how he is under-performing.
Christian Eriksen is the kind of star who is easy to not notice.
The chief reason that Tottenham's star man is under-appreciated is simple: His skill set combined with his role in this team make that inevitable. Throw in the fact that soccer doesn't have a common, widely available stat like the hockey assist to reflect a player's contribution in build-up play and you have the perfect storm of circumstances that will cause many fans to under-rate Eriksen just as they under-rated the last elite midfield passer at Tottenham before Eriksen, Luka Modric.
To begin, we need to talk about the things Eriksen does well:
- He can make pretty much any pass you could ask a footballer to make. He's comfortable with through balls along the ground, quick one-touch pass-and-move play, long diagonal balls to reverse the attack, and pushing the ball vertically through the air.
- He is consistently one of the most intelligent players on the field both in his own movement and in how he moves the ball.
- He covers a lot of ground both in attack as he drifts in and out of space and in defense with the aggressive high pressing style of Mauricio Pochettino.
- He's a dangerous shooter from distance and is one of the biggest threats from set pieces in the Premier League.
He's the sort of player a manager loves to have because of his versatility. But he's also the sort of player who will consistently be asked to play a variety of roles precisely because he's able to do so. Erik Lamela is a fantastic player, but he doesn't have the passing range of Eriksen. Mousa Dembele is arguably the MVP of the season so far for Spurs, but he doesn't have anything like Eriksen's creative ability on the ball. Dele Alli is a wonderful vertical attacker with an eye for goal, but he cannot recycle possession and keep the ball ticking over in attack the way that Eriksen does.
So while most of Spurs players have one or two things they do at a high level and are consistently put in positions to do just those things, Eriksen is often asked to assume different roles depending on the match and the personnel around him.
For example, in the 4-1 win against West Ham when the side was without Lamela and had to play with Heung-Min Son, a gifted wide attacker but a very different player from Lamela, Eriksen took less of a free role and recycled possession in the attacking third far less often. Instead, he stayed mostly on the left wing and pushed the ball vertically more often, meaning he covered less ground and completed a lower share of his attempted passes:
He had a similarly disciplined role against Bournemouth in the 5-1 win against the Cherries and for not altogether different reasons. Bournemouth was one of the first games for the Dier/Alli/Dembele midfield and at that point in the season Alli was still playing in the deeper role partnering Dier with Dembele pushed forward in the number 10.
Dembele as a number 10 is a very different proposition than Alli, however. Dembele's game is a strange hybrid in which he is mostly lateral as a passer and mostly vertical as a runner. Alli is almost entirely vertical. The consequence of this is Dembele needs two things that Alli does not: He needs passing options either side of him and he needs space around him to run into. Thus Eriksen again took a disciplined wide left attacking role but didn't push the ball vertically into the box as often as he would if someone like Son was making runs into the box:
Christian Eriksen's ideal role is also the most invisible attacking role in Pochettino's system.
That being said, Tottenham's best front six this year is clearly Dier and Dembele in midfield playing behind Eriksen and Lamela in the wide roles, Dele Alli in the number 10, and Harry Kane up top. This lineup checks all the boxes for Pochettino's ideal system. Dier plays as the midfield destroyer who shields the defense. Dembele offers good defensive work, plenty of muscle, but is more of a threat going forward than Dier. He does it in a very different way, but he essentially does what Morgan Schneiderlin did for Pochettino at Saints when the Frenchman was paired with Victor Wanyama in midfield. Wanyama ran around and broke things; Schneiderlin would receive the ball and get the attack moving forward while still providing a bit of defensive support.
In the front four, Lamela provides width, clever link-up play with Kane and Alli, and a remarkable work-rate in the press. Alli, as already mentioned, provides the kind of vertical attacking threat that Spurs haven't had, honestly, since the departure of Gareth Bale. Kane obviously does Harry Kane things up top. That leaves Eriksen.
in his ideal role Eriksen will do for Pochettino what Adam Lallana did for him at Southampton, just at a much higher level. He'll drift anywhere across the attacking third, but be used primarily as a lateral mover in the front four, often initiating the press when out of possession and then starting the attack once the ball is won. If the initial foray forward fails, Eriksen also excels at making himself available as a passing option to reset the attack. The passing map below, from the team's recent game against Sunderland, is typical of his play:
If you look at this chart, you see a few things: There is a lot of lateral passing. This can sometimes be a pass where Eriksen is resetting an attack after the first wave failed. It also, sometimes, is a pass Eriksen played after winning the ball out to Lamela or Kane, both of whom love to drift wide when Spurs are out of possession. There are also a number of short passes played and then a fair number of more vertical passes played into the box.
Taken as a whole, then, we see that Eriksen is being asked to basically do every sort of passing that a midfielder could be asked to do and to do it from anywhere across the attacking third. And here's the thing: He does it at a consistently high level. He completed 85% of the passes he played in this game and of the 10 failed passes, half of them came on passes he was playing directly into the box or to the central attacking area just outside of the box. In other words, the passes he needs to be successful—the short quick passes along the flanks and the lateral passes that reset the attack—are completed at an almost 100% success rate. The passes where failure is unlikely to hurt the team—ambitious long balls into the box that can trigger a quick press when the ball is in transition—are the ones where we see him failing at a higher rate.
What does this mean for Eriksen's perception amongst fans?
Essentially it means that he is fated to be a player closer to Angel Di Maria or Sergio Busquets than Gareth Bale or Luis Suarez. Eriksen is a world-class midfield passer, which is to say he's one of the best in the world at holding a team together in a coherent system, but that he is unlikely to be at the end of a sparkling attacking move or to put up especially gaudy stats.
Rather, Eriksen will be the player who makes the overall system tick. Perceptive fans of the game know that when Real Madrid won La Decima, it may have been Bale who scored the winner, but it was Angel Di Maria who carried the team on the day. It was his running with the ball and overall work-rate that made Carlo Ancelotti's odd 4-3-3/4-4-2 hybrid effective. Beyond that, Di Maria is the only reason Madrid did as well as they did in La Liga or that they advanced to the European final in the first place. It wasn't until Ancelotti brought Di Maria into the midfield trio to partner Modric and Xabi Alonso that Madrid's team started to make sense.
The next season when Madrid tried to function without him it quickly became apparent how much the Spanish giants needed the all-energy Di Maria to make their side work. Eriksen plays a similar role for Spurs. If you take him out of the team, the attack tends to dry up. This is not only because of Eriksen's role in the press, but also because of the way he is able to find space to receive the ball and then make the quick pass that can reset the attack and get the team moving forward again. When you remove that from the side, it's very difficult to replace. The closest thing Spurs have to a replacement for Eriksen is Tom Carroll, but Carroll is still relatively new to the Premier League and is not the passer that Eriksen is.
Eriksen hasn't been in a slump. Rather, he's playing a different role in the team than he did last season when it was typically only Eriksen and Kane powering the entire Spurs attack. With Lamela in-form, Dembele back at his best, and Dele Alli now thriving in the number 10 role, Eriksen is able to play a more limited role, but also a role more suited to his strengths as a passer and orchestrator. If you think of him as being something of a cross between Modric (as a midfield metronome and playmaker) and David Silva (as a playmaker who starts in wide areas but drifts everywhere) then you basically have the measure of Eriksen. But because of the goal-scoring heroics of Kane and Alli as well as the long-awaited emergence of Lamela, Spurs fans have generally missed the vital role that Eriksen plays in the team. Now that he's back in the goals, hopefully that criticism will quiet for a bit. But even if he does go on another extended goal drought, that does not at all mean the playmaker is in a slump. It may just mean he's thriving in a deeper passing role that provides a platform for the more obvious heroics of Kane and Alli.