A brief recap of where Spurs have been over the last two seasons:
- Mousa Dembele got old.
- Eric Dier died.
- Mauricio Pochettino had to shift formation to accommodate for the fact that our midfield sitaution was LOL what’s a midfield.
- It worked for about two months late in 2018 and then it really, really did not work. for basically all of 2019, save a few random Champions League games.
In the meantime, Christian Eriksen’s contract wound down and his attitude seemed to follow the same trajectory. And in the midst of all that Spurs signed Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso.
Here’s the good news: We probably don’t need to play the stupid diamond anymore because we have actual midfielders now.
Here’s the bad news: The fourth member of DESK, which would theoretically be our attacking four once we returned to the traditional midfield two with Ndombele and a partner, is in no state to play regular minutes for the team.
And here’s more bad news: The traditional Pochettino 4-2-3-1 depends a great deal on every player understanding their role in the system and executing it competently. A high press breaks if one person consistently fails in their responsibilities. (See: Mason, Ryan)
Where that left us, or seemed to leave us at the beginning of this week, was fairly uncertain about the best system for the team going forward. One plausible solution, and one Pochettino has experimented with, is swapping Lo Celso into the front four and using him in a wide creator role similar to the role played by Eriksen over the past several seasons.
That being said, the team’s best midfield two is probably Ndombele and Lo Celso. Playing Lo Celso as a wide creator, therefore, means both playing the Argentinian playmaker out of position and pairing Ndombele with Harry Winks or Moussa Sissoko.
Against Red Star Belgrade we saw what might be another possible solution: The return of Erik Lamela.
Lamela has long been a fan favorite. A record signing who was criminally under-utilized by both Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood, Lamela found his footing under his compatriot Pochettino and, in Pochettino’s second year, became a locked-in starter in the first elite team of the Pochettino era.
The next season I actually wondered aloud if we would see Lamela make the leap and become a top 10 player in the Premier League. Instead he spent the entire season struggling with injuries while watching Son Heung-Min take his place in the first XI. Ever since, Lamela has been a rotation player, a second or third choice wide attacker who rotates into the team when Eriksen or Son need a rest or are unavailable. And while he has shown flashes of his 2015-16 self, that’s all they’ve been.
That may change this season. Indeed it may have to change this season.
If the victory against Red Star is any indicator, Spurs are at their best when playing a 4-2-3-1. It allows Kane to be a true line-leading striker, it keeps Dele in a more advanced position, and allows Son to still play close to goal without disrupting Kane. It also allows Ndombele to play the role he is most comfortable playing.
But for the system to work, at least if it is the traditional Pochettino system, the players have to press. And they need to press without giving up attacking quality. On his day, that is precisely what Lamela can offer. He’ll never be the technician on the ball that Eriksen is, of course. But if Lamela can offer a high work rate in the press, incisive dribbling, and above-average service to the rest of the attacking four, that may be all Spurs need.
The alternatives to this are not promising. A 4-2-3-1 with a front four of Kane, Son, Dele, and Lucas lacks creativity. Lo Celso as the fourth attacker might be better, but would seem to require playing him in a role he’s never played before and, therefore, under-utilizing his considerable talent. Other formations, whether three at the back or a diamond or something else entirely, are unproven and run the risk of antagonizing the squad, whose spirit is likely still in a relatively fragile state.
During the Red Star match Joel Wertheimer observed in our writer’s room that there would be something fitting about Lamela saving the Pochettino era at Spurs. If Poche is going to survive, it will depend on how consistently Spurs can produce performances like this week’s European triumph. And if that’s what they’re going to do, they’ll need Lamela to be at his best.