There's a common story told about last year's Tottenham that goes something like this: Midway through the season, the "Kaboul Kabal" led to midfielder Etienne Capoue being banished to Vladivostok along with Emmanuel Adebayor, Aaron Lennon, and the man for whom the cabal was named, team captain Younes Kaboul. In the aftermath, Mauricio Pochettino turned to an all-academy midfield of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb. In so doing, he essentially torpedoed Tottenham's season by replacing a functional (if bland) midfield with a far more erratic pair that couldn't be counted on to execute Pochettino's high pressing system.
The obituary pieces came in droves after the late season defeat to Manchester United that in many ways defined the failure of last season's Tottenham. Our own Brett Rainbow wrote one of them, but Mike Goodman and Richard Whittall wrote similar pieces as well. Michael Caley wrote an entire piece about the specific failing of last season's team which was handling the opposition attack when the first line of the press was broken. The specific problem was that the attacking line and the midfield two seldom worked together and thus when the attacking line failed to win the ball, chaos inevitably followed. Often the problem appeared to center on Mason's movement in midfield and his lack of positional sense. This, in turn, created enormous amounts of space between the Tottenham lines which opposition attacks exploited time after time.
Is Ryan Mason as bad defensively as we think he is?
If you're looking only at Mason's individual performance last season, it's hard to avoid answering ".... yes, yes he is," to that question. But there are several points that should be remembered that will complicate the picture a little bit.
As we have seen, having an attacking four that understands their roles in the system can make a huge difference. (This is an indirect way of saying that an advanced midfield three of Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, and Dele Alli is far superior to a front three of Eriksen, Nacer Chadli, and Andros Townsend.) Pochettino's is a high press and so the work begins with that front three, but their failings will be less apparent because they are almost always the initial failing that is followed by a number of other more notable actions.
Take the notorious Fellaini goal from last season. The man pressing the ball high up the pitch on the goal is Chadli, perhaps the laziest of Spurs attacking players who still sees regular playing time. Chadli's choice to press the ball in that sequence is understandable, of course, but that still does not mean he is good at pressing the ball. But that's who was shielding Mason, as it were, in Tottenham's lineup that day. So it's possible that Mason was exposed so often last year because attacking players like Chadli and Townsend were not able to execute the press at the level required.
Another factor to consider: Having a midfield destroyer like Eric Dier sitting at the base of the formation makes a huge difference in a team's defensive solidity. Indeed, it's worth asking if Bentaleb was not equally responsible for the failure of last season's midfield, particularly given the lack of confidence Pochettino seems to have in him and the poor performances he has turned in literally every match he has played this season. Everything we know about Pochettino in England tells us that the man wants a pure destroyer at the base of midfield. In his early days at Southampton he often limited Morgan Schneiderlin, a very capable box-to-box player, to a pure destroying role. He then spent £12.5m the next summer to sign Victor Wanyama—a high amount by both Southampton and Pochettino's standards. But in season one at Spurs, Pochettino didn't have a serviceable destroyer after Capoue's exile. Bentaleb, like Schneiderlin is far more of a box-to-box player but, unlike Schneiderlin, may not have had the smarts or ability to transition into a destroyer role when asked to do so.
Finally, we might also reasonably note that it's not unusual for teams to take time picking up a system like Pochettino's. Year 2 is almost always much superior to year 1. Complex pressing systems take time to learn. (And yes, this is why you should probably be scared of Liverpool next season.) Spurs were still learning to play Pochettino's way last season—and that problem extends to far more players than just Mason.
Obviously those factors don't completely exonerate Mason for his role in last season's dumpster fire of a defense. But defensive systems like Pochettino's are just that—systems. When they fail, it is seldom the fault of a single player. The entire squad has to be moving together and that did not happen with nearly enough consistency last season.
Has Mason improved defensively?
We obviously haven't had a lot of opportunity to answer that question this year, but there's reason to be optimistic. Against Fiorentina last week, his positioning was generally much better, he didn't commit as many sloppy turnovers, and he was moving in sync with the rest of the team. When the attacking line moved forward, Mason did too. When they dropped off, he did too.
He also generally avoided over-running the play and creating a major gap for the opposition to attack. In the sequence below, he does just enough to force Illicic to move the ball on before working with Lamela to squeeze the Fiorentina runner and force him into a bad pass, which ends the Viola threat:
The above is far from exceptional. It is, in fact, how Mason played for the entire time he was on the pitch. Can he replicate that if asked to in the Premier League? Well, we don't know. But against Fiorentina his game was pleasingly free of the defensive errors that so crippled him last season. So there's reason to be hopeful about his progression in year two under Pochettino.
What does Mason add for Spurs?
The other angle to consider here is that for all the quality in Tottenham's squad, there is really only one regular squad member who adds a real vertical threat to the team from midfield. That player, of course is Dele Alli. But Alli has emerged as an elite attacking midfielder which means that more often than not lately we are seeing him play in the three man attacking band rather than in the midfield two as he did for the first third of this season.
In the majority of cases, this has been OK. Our midfield lacks a real vertical attacker when Mousa Dembele or Eriksen partner Dier, but that typically hasn't hurt us that much. The team's overall movement in the attacking third and particularly the intelligent runs made by Alli and the great lateral movement from Eriksen, Dembele, and Lamela usually are sufficient to open up a packed defense.
That said, in some situations the attack can become stagnant as huge amounts of space open up between the midfield and attacking third and the team is unable to find a way to link the two lines. The 3-1 victory against Crystal Palace is the most obvious example of this problem.
In that case, Pochettino transformed the game by introducing Chadli for Dier. This had the effect of dropping Alli into midfield and bringing Chadli, a more lateral drifter than either Alli or Heung-Min Son, into the attacking three. That one-two punch made it possible for Spurs to move the ball through the attacking third as Chadli was now showing for the ball and Alli was making the aggressive vertical runs down the center of the field that can break open a packed defense.
The only other player in this Spurs team who makes these kind of runs is Ryan Mason. And he is exceptionally good at timing them. Here's the run he made against Sunderland earlier this season that finished with him scoring the match-winning goal:
And he does this sort of thing regularly. Here he is doing the same early in the game against Fiorentina last week:
In this case, the run didn't lead to anything. But a few minutes later it did:
What is striking about both runs Mason makes is how the two look virtually identical in the buildup. The difference is simply that in the second run Mason got the ball at the end and in the first run he did not. But the positioning, timing, and direction of the run is quite similar. The reason these runs can be so devastating is simple: They create an overload for the defense as a fifth attacker joins the play. The above goal is a perfect example. Mason is completely unmarked coming out of midfield. It's actually precisely the sort of run that elite English box-to-box midfielders have been making for ages. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard made these runs all the time for Chelsea and Liverpool respectively.
If Spurs will be without Dele Alli today against West Ham, having someone like Mason available to make these vertical runs down the center of the field may be essential, particularly if West Ham gets the first goal and then looks to defend and counter. The front four plus the fullbacks will create chances on their own, no doubt, but to be able to add the threat of vertical runs from midfield can only help the attack. Mason does that for Spurs. If he can add that option without crippling us defensively, then he is a real asset to the team as we hit the season's home stretch that sees a fixture pileup that could do real damage to Tottenham's title chances, particularly given the entirely reasonable concern that the team will break down in the final weeks due to the fanatical workrate Pochettino requires of his players.