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Victor Wanyama started slow but turned into one of Tottenham’s most important players.

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The Kenyan midfielder transformed Tottenham this season—for better and worse.

Tottenham Hotspur v Millwall - The Emirates FA Cup Quarter-Final Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Cartilage Free Captain is reviewing the players of Tottenham Hotspur and how they performed in the 2016-17 Premier League season. Here’s the review of Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama.

Victor Wanyama

Appearances: 47 (36 EPL, 5 UCL, 2 UEL, 3 FA Cup, 1 League Club)
Goals: 5
Assists: 1
Cards: 12Y

What went right?

Victor Wanyama’s season may be the most difficult to analyze of all this year’s key players. Before getting to the problems, let’s talk about what he added to the team.

One of the big gaps in last season’s team was depth in midfield. After Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier, the preferred duo in Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1 system, the backups were... well, not reliable. But it wasn’t just quality midfielders that we lacked. We also lacked the sort of destroying midfield specialist who is so valuable in today’s more frenetic, high-paced pressing game.

There was a joke amongst Leicester fans last season that they actually played a three-man midfield: Danny Drinkwater with N’Golo Kante on either side of him. If you have a midfielder who can run sideline to sideline to break up play and start counter attacks, that completely transforms how you can attack the opposition. Wanyama, of course, is not on Kante’s level—no one is, really. But he is like Kante in that he covers a ton of ground and breaks up a freakish amount of opposition attacks.

That skill alone meant that Wanyama was always going to add something big to this Tottenham squad. But then it turned out that he added much more than just that destructive midfield presence. We learned something in the first half of this season about Pochettino’s 4-2-3-1: If any one of Dembele, Dier, Jan Vertonghen, or Toby Alderweireld was injured, the system didn’t work. The Dierbele midfield pivot had the perfect balance of defensive rigor and ball progression. Vertonghen and Alderweireld, meanwhile, are perfect Pochettino center backs in terms of their individual skills as well as both being in the top five center backs in the English top flight.

If any of the four could not play, the 4-2-3-1 simply didn’t work:

  • Without Dembele our ball progression strategy became “Hey Toby and Jan, kick the ball really hard toward the opposition goal and hope one of our guys gets it.”
  • Without Dier, we lacked the deep central pivot to recycle possession and to free Jan and Toby to push wide and high.
  • Without Jan or Toby, Dier had to drop into defense and Dier is simply not an elite center back at this phase of his career, though he could become one in the future.

By December, even the stubborn Pochettino realized it. He made a move toward a 3-4-3/3-5-2 hybrid system that did a couple important things:

  • It solved the ball progression problem by allowing Jan and either Toby or Dier to push even further forward.
  • It restored the deep central pivot to recycle possession.
  • It concealed most of Wanyama’s limitations.
  • It dropped Eriksen into a deeper, more central role, enabling him to also play a role in advancing the ball.

One of the main reasons that system worked is Victor Wanyama. Indeed, the team experimented with a Dembele-less version of the system in December and, even if the opposition was quite poor, looked far more comfortable than they ever do when playing without Dembele in the 4-2-3-1. This is because the system was aggressive enough to advance the ball without Dembele in the squad and because Wanyama’s range made up for the relative lightness of the midfield.

With the three defender system, Wanyama’s two biggest limitations are basically muted: First, his lack of ball progression is not a problem because there are so many other options for Spurs to advance the ball. Second, because there is a third center back, Wanyama doesn’t need to drop off vertically to split the center backs, something he struggled to do when asked to do so in the 4-2-3-1.

What went wrong?

Let’s talk a bit about Wanyama’s limitations now.

First, his first touch is often quite poor, which can lead to turnovers in the defensive half. In the 4-2-3-1 this was a big problem because Wanyama ought to have been the deepest central player in the system because the center backs ought to push wide and high. That said, it may actually be a good thing for us that Wanyama wasn’t better at splitting the center halves—we may have seen a lot of dangerous turnovers if he had dropped off into deep central positions more often.

Second, his passing is erratic, particularly his close-range passing. This, again, can lead to turnovers. But it also can kill attacks before they can even start. Given that Wanyama is often the player who wins the ball, his inability to distribute can be a huge source of frustration.

That said, the 3-5-2 helped address some of these problems so they became way less of an issue as the year progressed. Additionally, Wanyama seemed to take major strides and was far more reliable in possession by the end of the season.

What now?

If Tottenham is going to compete in both the Premier League and the Champions League, the squad needs 14 to 16 players good enough to start consistently at that level. Wanyama is absolutely the sort of player we should have in and around the first XI. If we’re playing 4-2-3-1, then a Dierbele midfield is a far better solution than anything with Wanyama in it. That said, any kind of system using a single pivot, either the briefly used 4-1-4-1 of last fall or the 3-5-2 we saw more often, requires a midfielder like Wanyama.

If you look at most of the elite European teams, they have a handful of players who are great squad players, know their role in the team, and execute it at a high level. They aren’t the world-class stars in the team, but they’re solid, key contributors who will play in 20+ league games as starters or impact subs, and who will make one or two key plays in pivotal matches.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s United teams were full of these sorts of players. The 2012-13 team, which was his final United team and won the league got 21 starts from Jonny Evans, 24 from Antonio Valencia, 17 from Ashley Young, 18 from Tom Cleverley, and 17 from Shinji Kagawa.

The 2009-10 Chelsea side that won the league had a similar group of key support players. Ricardo Carvalho, John Obi Mikel, Yuri Zhirkov, and Salomon Kalou all made regular appearances in the squad.

Simply put, if you want to compete at the highest levels of the European game, you need 14-16 players who can make around 20 appearances in the league without completely screwing up your season. They can’t all be elite, world-class talents, but they need to be good enough and they need to add something unique to the team. Victor Wanyama is that sort of player. Given his price and the role he filled in the team, he’s undoubtedly one of our best transfer signings in recent years.

Rating: 4 Chirpys