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Tottenham Hotspur 2016-17 squad preview: Attacking Midfield

Tottenham’s attacking midfield trio is young, exciting, dynamic, and a lot of fun to watch.

Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

We’re less than a week away from the opening of the new Premier League season. Although the transfer window is still officially open through the end of August, the season won’t wait for the window. As Tottenham Hotspur prepare to open their season against Everton at Goodison Park on Saturday, August 13, it’s time to take a detailed look at the various parts of Spurs’ predicted starting lineup.

Previously: GoalkeepersDefendersCentral Midfield

Attacking Midfield

Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Son Heung-Min, Nacer Chadli, Josh Onomah, Clinton N’Jie, Marcus Edwards

The center of midfield might make Tottenham Hotspur’s offense run, but it’s the attacking midfield band that makes it soar. Spurs employ a bank of three attacking mids ahead of a two man pivot, and those AMs are responsible for helping set up their teammates with good scoring opportunities and through-balls into the box, for pressing the hell out of the opposition when they don’t have the ball, and when they have the chance, to score themselves.

What’s fascinating about Mauricio Pochettino’s attacking midfielders is their positional fluidity. Rather than having a CAM who plays in the hole and two traditional wingers who hug the touchline and lob in crosses from the flanks, Tottenham’s AMs cut inside, swap positions, and make nuisances of themselves. They drop deep to receive the ball, make cuts to drag defenders out of positions, and when they can’t feed Harry Kane or a surging teammate, get into open channels to score themselves. They’re also savvy enough to recognize pressing triggers when they lose the ball and work in tandem to force opposition players with the ball at their feet to make mistakes and recycle possession.

The three players who do the best job of this are unsurprisingly the first on Pochettino’s team sheet. Erik Lamela, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen were Spurs’ first team starters last season and there’s absolutely no reason to think that their starting jobs are in any danger as the new Premier League season kicks off.

All three have a different skill set, but they complement each other perfectly. Eriksen, who typically starts on the left despite mostly playing centrally, is a creative force who can pick out a key pass from virtually any position and is perhaps Spurs’ most intelligent player. He also has an incredible free kick and is a constant threat on set pieces. Alli has a knack for finding open space, is proficient in front of goal, a technical sensation, and plays with a nasty streak that can knock opponents off their game (but sometimes gets him in trouble). Lamela is ferocious in the midfield press, has the vision to perfectly weight a through ball into the box for a teammate to run onto, and if the preseason is any indication, has also found his scoring boots.

We didn’t see much of them together in the pre-season friendly matches, but what we did see, combined with what we already know from last season, makes me incredibly excited for the season to come.

Eriksen, Alli, and Lamela can’t play every game, though. They will tire, and Pochettino will rotate. Thankfully, there are a number of players behind them that are waiting for their chance to show Spurs fans what they can do.

Son Heung-Min was the exciting deadline day signing from last summer, and Spurs fans were especially thrilled to see the former Bayer Leverkusen man and South Korea star join what was already a loaded midfield. An injury derailed Sonny early on and it seemed like he never found his rhythm in last year’s Spurs side. Sure, he had his midair-backheel-nutmeg-match-winning-goal, but fans quickly got frustrated when he didn’t hit the ground running, and there were numerous times where he looked out of sync with the rest of his teammates.

Sonny is the best player in Asia, and at his best he’s a pacy, versatile inside forward who can play anywhere along the attacking band and with the ability to score some absolute worldies. Erik Lamela’s development as a Tottenham player is reason enough for Spurs fans to be patient with Son, who one can argue needed the whole of last season to adjust to the pace and physicality of the Premier League.

There’s the sense, however, that this is a key season for Son. He’ll start the season as a late game reserve midfielder, cup match starter, and the third choice option at striker, but a few solid performances could see him force his way back into the starting 11. Who would he come in for? I’ll leave that decision up to Mauricio Pochettino, if it happens.

Nacer Chadli is one of the last players left who was purchased with the Gareth Bale money, but he may not be long for life at Tottenham. Chadli’s a big guy who made his name in 2014-15 when he seemed to always be in the right place at the right time, popping up with regularity to score 11 league goals. Last season, however, his scoring output regressed, he started picking up a reputation for disappearing in matches and not helping out on defense. Fans soon started to sour on him and his playing time started to dwindle. He was left off of Belgium’s Euro squad by Marc Wilmots this summer.

Chadli’s a useful player to have around when he’s in scoring form, but he doesn’t contribute much to the offense besides goals: he’s not particularly adept in the press, he’s not the guy you look to for that moment of creative beauty, and he can drift completely out of matches. It’s one reason he’s been seriously linked with a move to Swansea City this summer. My sense is that so long as he’s at Tottenham he’ll be restricted to match mop-up duty, or a body to throw in when Spurs are chasing a goal in the event that he can make some magic happen. A move to Wales might not be a bad move for “the dolphin” in all honesty; he needs to be on a team that can focus around his abilities, and he needs minutes if he’s going to have any chance of getting back in a very good Belgium squad.

Nineteen year old Josh Onomah, by contrast, is a young player on the rise. A Tottenham academy graduate, he made his first team debut in 2014-15 under Pochettino and had a few outings as a late game substitute last season. Now, after a good performance with England in the U19 Euros, Onomah is now poised to make a statement.

He’s a graceful player, good with the ball at his feet, and composed in the face of pressure. Most of his substitute appearances for Spurs have come as a winger, but he also has the ability to play in the pivot, and there’s talk that central midfield might be his long-term future at Spurs.

Nobody should expect Onomah to be lining up to start against the likes of Everton and Chelsea this season, but he should get his share of minutes in the domestic cups, and it would not surprise me at all to see him on the bench during a lot of matches. There are high expectations for him, and he has the time to learn at the feet of the masters before he inherits a starting role.

Pity poor Clinton N’Jie. Just a year after he was purchased from Lyon for £10m, his Tottenham career appears to be over almost before it’s even begun. He was unlucky to pick up a major injury last fall that kept him out for an extended period of time. By the time he got healthy again, the team had already passed him by and he appears to be on his way back to France on loan for the year.

That said, Mauricio Pochettino still apparently likes him a great deal and thinks he can develop into a very good player. From the little we saw of him, N’Jie is a player who excels on the dribble and loves to take on opposition defenders and try to get past them. His pace is his main attribute, but he also has the ability to play at the tip of the spear and was seen as a possible replacement for Harry Kane last season.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get to see Clinton play for Tottenham again, which is tragic. His Marseille loan reportedly has an option to purchase at the end of next season. However, maybe there’s still a chance that he could return to Spurs and make his name. Anything can happen.

Edit: I forgot Marcus Edwards! The crown jewel of Tottenham Hotspur’s academy, Edwards, 17, is considered one of the most talented players in his age group... in England. Diminutive in size, Edwards possesses a Maradona-esque low center of gravity, and has an impressive speed and technical ability for someone so young. We saw in his preseason stints that he was not afraid to take the ball at his feet and attempt to bypass defenders. There was talk that he might leave the club after he stalled on signing a professional deal, but has since signed a two-year contract with Spurs with guarantees of first-team training and match minutes. He’s still pretty raw and is untested against top competition, so expect that those minutes will likely come in the cups this season Regardless, “Messi with an Afro” is expected to be the next emerging Tottenham Hotspur star.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the in-process transfer of Marseille winger Georges-Kevin N’Koudou. As of now, the deal has not been finalized, but both clubs are expecting it to happen before the end of the window. We haven’t seen N’Koudou in action, but he is apparently a player whom Mauricio Pochettino admires a great deal. He’s a pacy winger who loves to take on defenders on the dribble, which makes him different than most of Spurs’ primary attacking midfield options. In fact, his closest analogue is probably N’Jie, whom will be heading the other way on loan with an option to buy. Even if the transfer does go through, don’t expect to see N’Koudou make a significant impact for a while – he’s missed the entire preseason, and will have a lot of ground to make up before he’s deemed “Poche fit.”

There’s talk that Spurs are still in the market for one more young attacking midfielder in this transfer window. It would be needed, especially if Chadli is sold. The name that’s been floating around lately (mostly unsubstantiated) is Dinamo Zagreb’s Ante Coric, a highly-coveted #10 who has been compared to Luka Modric. He would be a perfect addition to this Spurs side: young, exciting, and with tremendous upside. Now that Spurs are in the Champions League, that plus the prospect of playing for a manager that has a proven record of developing young talent might be enough to attract Coric, or another suitably talented youngster, to White Hart Lane.