In the aftermath of a potentially season-saving weekend win against West Ham fans have been quick to praise a few obvious heroes: debutant Harry Winks whose 51st minute goal equalized a match that could have gotten away from us, star man Harry Kane whose two late goals won the match for us, and substitute Son Heung-Min who assisted on both of Kane’s goals.
One man whose name hasn’t been mentioned nearly enough is defender/midfielder, Eric Dier. Filling in for injured star Toby Alderweireld is an almost impossible task for the simple reason that it’s almost impossible to find another player in the world with Alderweireld’s skill-set: He’s smart positionally, big enough to hold his own with imposing strikers, he’s great attacking the ball on set pieces, quick enough to play further up the field, and passes the ball better than any defender in the world save perhaps David Luiz. As I have noted before, when Spurs lose Toby, we don’t just lose an elite defender, we lose a key player in our system who makes the whole system work.
That said, on the evidence so far, Dier may be the most like-for-like replacement for Alderweireld that the club could possibly find, even with a limitless transfer budget. Let’s review the evidence.
Dier’s passing from the back has been outstanding.
Five minutes into the game against West Ham, Dier did this:
15 minutes later, he did this:
In both cases, the attack goes for naught as both Christian Eriksen and Vincent Janssen had strayed offside before Dier played the pass. But these long diagonal passes are precisely the sort of passes Alderweireld makes for us regularly. And they do several key things:
- They allow us to skip the congested midfield area. (This is particularly valuable when we’re playing without proper wingers, as we were this weekend.)
- Our preferred attacking style is direct, route-one attacking off of long balls. So this passing allows us to attack in our most comfortable, preferred style. (We rely equally on wing play, short passing through the middle, and long, direct passing to create chances. Arsenal and City use wide attacking and short passing through the middle to set up shots nearly twice as often as they use direct attacking moves.)
- The rest of our attack hinges on our ability to disrupt the opposition with direct attacking. That is how the space is made for us to attack from the wings and down the middle.
You can see some evidence of the role Dier’s passing played in opening things up in this sequence, in which Dier is able to carry the ball forward and play a ball along the grass into Eriksen in the hole between the defense and midfield.
This passing is an essential part of our attacking style and we’ve missed it enormously while Toby has been out. If Eric can do this on a regular basis, it bodes well for our ability to cope in the future should Toby get hurt again.
Dier was also very good in other phases of play.
In the second half, we saw Dier really excel in other areas of play as well. In the 58th minute he had an excellent header that could easily have been a goal:
What’s notable about it is that it came at the end of an attacking sequence of a set play where the initial cross had been cleared. Dier’s pace combined with our assurance in possession means that he can stay in advanced positions longer than most center backs can. And that is what allowed him to stay forward longer and get that headed chance that nearly gave us the lead ten minutes before West Ham went back in front.
The other key passage came in the 74th minute. A bad Christian Eriksen turnover in midfield led to a West Ham break with Simone Zaza running at the Spurs defense and Payet running in acres of space to his left. Zaza finally played the pass to Payet who had the ball in the box with only Dier between him and Hugo Lloris. Here’s how Dier handled that:
Granted, Zaza did Spurs a huge favor by delaying the pass for as long as he did. If he plays it three seconds sooner, Dier likely doesn’t have a chance to stop Payet and it’s all down to Lloris making a world-class save to keep Spurs in the game. But that, of course, is not what happened. Zaza delayed and gave Dier a chance. And Dier took it. He stays on his feet. He stays in front of Payet. He denies him any dangerous passing lanes. All Payet can do is lay the ball off for Zaza, who curls a weak shot straight at Lloris.
Dier’s maturation into a top center half doesn’t necessarily solve all our problems. In some ways, it simply shifts them: Now the challenge is not finding a capable replacement for Toby, but finding one for Dier in the midfield role. At present Spurs do not have another elite defensive midfielder who is comfortable in a deep, central role in a double pivot. Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama can play that role, but neither is anywhere near the caliber of Dier. For this reason, Tottenham still desperately needs a fit-again Toby to return to the XI. Until he does, our midfield is likely to struggle.
That said, if our defense overcomes the odds against it and is able to maintain its performance level, we will have Eric Dier to thank for it.