Doing on/off analysis in soccer is notoriously fraught. There just aren’t enough events to get a meaningful sample, the best players play a lot, subs are infrequent, selection bias means good players are rotated against poor sides, and the interplay of talent and replacement players and who is on the pitch is incredibly hard to study. Kevin De Bruyne has been hurt for much of the season and Manchester City has barely missed a beat. Is he overrated? Probably not. Mostly, Mahrez is great, City have another year of Pep under their belt, and everybody is clicking.
That said, what this article supposes is, what if doing this analysis for Spurs in 2018 is quite easy. Spurs are not Manchester City and their weaknesses are pretty clear: the talent is medicore at fullback and the midfield has broken for much of this season, leading Spurs to defend at a truly mediocre level.
Here’s the thing though: when Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli play, Spurs are essentially just as good, if not better, than they’ve been the past couple years. Instead of a Dier-Winks(-Sissoko) midfield two/three, Spurs are able to run a 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 diamond with Dier at the base, Sissoko running, and Dele and Eriksen dropping back into midfield or playing the ten. The fluidity between midfield and attack works, with Dele and Eriksen seemingly everwhere, flitting onto screen constantly. (NB: it’s been particularly jarring to watch Spurs without Eriksen for the first time in years and wonder why there isn’t an outlet for an attacking player or midfielder, only to realize that’s part of Erisken’s greatness.)
Dele and Eriksen’s versatility and talent have allow Spurs to shape shift tactically. Dele, in particular, has a good argument as Tottenham’s best player and one of the five best in the league. He is managing to put up bonkers attacking numbers (his non-penalty xG+xA/90 is at .63, good for 18th in the league), while also playing essentially as an excellent defensive central midfielder. Defensively, his tackles and interceptions per 90 are at 4, putting him equal to Arsenal’s Lucas Torreira.
So, what do Spurs look like with and without Dele and/or Eriksen (EPL and UCL)?
With both of them on the pitch as starters, Spurs are world beaters. That xG differential of 1.25 , which includes tough matches like Chelsea, Arsenal, and Barca, is about what Liverpool has put up in the league this season. With just one of them starting, Spurs have been slightly above average, and with neither starting, Spurs have been bang average.
Playing without one, let alone both, has been incredibly rare for Spurs over the past three season. Of 114 league matches over the prior three seasons, Eriksen started 106 and Dele 97. Quite simply, they have been rocks of the very good Tottenham sides of the past three years. Without them this year, Spurs have been very lucky to achieve the results they have. If both are healthier, now that they’ve gotten some rest due to their muscle injuries, Spurs may be back to playing just as well as they have over the past few years.