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Tottenham Hotspur 2016-17 squad preview: Central Midfield

The keyword for Spurs’ midfield pivot is, again, depth. Do they have enough? And do they have the right kind?

Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/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.

Central Midfield

Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele, Victor Wanyama, Ryan Mason, Tom Carroll, Harry Winks, Nabil Bentaleb

Harken back, gentle readers, to the 2014-15 season, a simpler time when Spurs were all blood, thunder and grit, Tim Sherwood threw his gilet on the sideline, and Tottenham’s midfield was anchored by a combination of Benji Stambouli, Nabil Bentaleb, and Ryan Mason. A lot has changed since then: Stambouli is gone, Bentaleb is on his way out, and Spurs converted a central defender and a CAM into pivot players last season, riding that partnership to the cusp of a Premier League title.

For Tottenham Hotspur, there possibly isn’t a single area of the pitch that’s more critical to the success or failure of Mauricio Pochettino’s tactics than the midfield pivot. And no two players were more important in that pivot than Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele.

While it took until November for Pochettino to come to the conclusion that he had found his primary central defense partnership as he experimented with Nabil Bentaleb, Ryan Mason, and Dele Alli in the pivot beside Dier, by the time Spurs played West Ham on November 22, he had figured out that the Belgian’s strength on the ball and ability to both dribble around and press opposition midfielders perfectly complemented Dier’s ability to break up play. The importance of Dembele can’t be understated: in the 29 matches with Dembele in the lineup Spurs won 15 of them; in the 21 matches without him they won only seven.

Dier, meanwhile, was a revelation in his first season as a defensive midfielder. He quickly transitioned from a novelty into a competent midfielder, and finally into one of the best defensive mids in the Premier League. He was also able to parlay that experience into a highly successful Euro campaign with England. Dier’s strength comes in his exceptional ability to shield the defensive line — one of the reasons Spurs’ defense was so much improved last season. But Dier also showed himself to possess a canny football intelligence. While you’ll rarely see him bomb forward with the ball, he’s good enough with the ball at his feet and even has the ability to ping a ball forward towards Dele Alli and Harry Kane.

So it’s no surprise that in the new Premier League season Spurs are going to dance with them what brought them. There’s just one problem: at the start of the summer, the players behind Dier and Dembele just weren’t that good. Dembele is both suspended for the first month of the season and a perpetual risk to miss time at some point due to injury. Eric Dier stayed healthy, but Spurs played him last season until his legs practically fell off. And the end of last season with Ryan Mason in midfield, Spurs looked like a shadow of themselves as they limped to a terrible finish. It’s unfair to pin all that on the pivot, but it was abundantly clear that central midfield reinforcements were needed this summer.

Enter Victor Wanyama. The Kenyan midfielder, whom Pochettino managed while at Southampton, was Spurs’ first summer signing. He knows Pochettino’s system, and enters the midfield mix as somewhat of a combination of Dier and Dembele. He’s able to hold up the ball but doesn’t possess the dribbling ability or strength of Dembele. He’s a capable holder, but perhaps hasn’t shown the defensive efficacy of Dier. He’s a tweener, which could make him very valuable as Spurs head into what promises to be a congested season of league and Champions League.

Wanyama is going to play a major role this season. He has a chance to start beside Eric Dier in the pivot against Everton on Sunday, though his visa troubles robbed us of the possibility of seeing that in preseason action in Oslo. But even if he initially isn’t in the first 11 once Dembele returns, he will most assuredly see action as Dier’s rotation option both in the league and possibly in the Champions League. He offers a different look from either Dembele or Dier, which allows Pochettino to use him tactically as well, should the need arise.

Who’s behind Dembele is a thornier issue. Ryan Mason got a good amount of time in the preseason both in Australia and in Norway. It’s clear Pochettino loves his effort and work ethic, but as we’ve discussed ad nauseum on this site, Mason’s gifts lie in his ability to get forward into open positions in the attacking third from deep, and not in positional discipline or passing vision. That can be very useful, but only if his penchant for making dumb tackles and missing pressing triggers doesn’t overshadow his ability to run into open channels. Right now, it looks like Mason is probably fourth on Spurs’ midfield depth chart, which feels about right. He’s likely to get significant minutes in the cups, and could be an impact substitute either in the pivot or in the attacking band, assuming he’s not sold to Hull City or Bournemouth (as has been rumored).

Tom Carroll is probably in that mix as well. A Cartilage Free Captain favorite for years now, Carroll’s been a competent, if not spectacular midfield deputy. When he first broke through into the first team, Carroll was known primarily for his technical ability. Slight of frame, he has the tendency to get bullied off the ball, which makes him a less natural replacement for Dembele. But he’s a useful player to have around. In recent seasons he’s been linked with moves away from the club, and with a glut of CMs, he could be the next midfielder to find his future away from Tottenham.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of Spurs’ preseason matches were the performances of Harry Winks, who not only held his own but sure looked like he deserved a shot to compete with Mason and Carroll in the pecking order. The 20-year old academy graduate looks like he’s added about 15 pounds of muscle during the past year and displayed both a tenacity in the press and a calmness on the ball that belies his years. We all know that Poche likes to give his talented youngsters a chance when they deserve it. Winksy gave a pretty impressive audition. One hopes he’s at least earned a bench spot for league games this season; with time and more good performances, he could vault into a cup starter and a late-game impact substitute.

I list Nabil Bentaleb only out of politeness. Pochettino has made it clear that Spurs’ Algerian academy product is no longer in his plans, and he is expected to be sold or loaned with an option to buy. It’s a bit sad: there was a time going into last season when we expected that Bentaleb was ready to explode into a genuine top-flight player. He was the chosen one. But a season blighted by injury and rumors of management clashes over a contract extension seemed to have soured things. He will not feature for Tottenham Hotspur this season; if he is not sold, I expect he’ll be back training with the U21s like he did last spring.

Make no mistake, Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele are Tottenham’s starting central midfielders. We don’t know which player will line up beside Dier at Goodison Park on Saturday — Wanyama? Mason? ...Winks? — but as soon as Moose is eligible to play again, he slots immediately back in the lineup. The intrigue comes in who will play when injury or match congestion forces Spurs to rotate. Pochettino seems to have gotten the players he wants for additional depth. Hopefully it’s enough.