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Tottenham Hotspur Season in Review 2018-19: Fullbacks

We had the Roseaissance and, sadly, no fullback whispering.

Ajax v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Over the course of his time in England, Mauricio Pochettino has, understandably, earned a reputation for being a “fullback whisperer.” At Southampton he would manage Luke Shaw, Nathaniel Clyne, and Calum Chambers, who sometimes played fullback and sometimes played center back. All three moved on bigger clubs after working with Pochettino.

Shaw, the recently announced Manchester United player of the year, moved to United in a record-setting £30m deal while still a teenager. Clyne joined Liverpool for £12.5m. Chambers moved to Arsenal, again as a teenager, for £16m.

Later, Pochettino would help Kyle Walker mature into not only an elite athletic fullback, something he has always been, but a tactically astute defender who was as strong defensively as he was going forward. It is hard to imagine Walker succeeding under either Pep Guardiola or Gareth Southgate in the weird hybrid role Southgate gave him were it not for Pochettino’s work with him. And, of course, Walker left Spurs for Man City in a deal worth more than £50m, then a world-record fee for a fullback.

When you add Danny Rose’s maturation under Pochettino, which has been quite similar to Walker’s though plagued with injuries in a way Walker was not, you have an impressive record of player development in the fullback role.

One major story in the 2018-19 season is the lack of development in Tottenham’s fullbacks. Rose reestablished himself as one of the top left backs in the Premier League and, arguably, in the world. But Kieran Trippier struggled, Serge Aurier regressed, and Ben Davies held steady. Academy graduate Kyle Walker-Peters was given a shot in the first team but looks destined for a move to a Championship club this summer which, honestly, is probably his level.

Put another way, the only major positive development for Tottenham’s fullbacks this year probably had more to do with Rose simply getting match time and returning to form then with any major developmental improvements with any of the team’s current players.

Let’s break it down more specifically though to see how each player performed and what we might expect in the summer transfer window.

Danny Rose

Though few have taken note of it, there is a good argument to be made that Danny Rose will go down as the defining player of the 2010 decade for Spurs. He made his debut in the spring of 2010, scoring his memorable volleyed goal against Arsenal in a late season derby at White Hart Lane. He then began to establish himself as a left back following Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s exit from the club. And with the arrival of Pochettino, he became the best left back in England for a time.

The past two years have been less kind to Rose and many thought his best football was behind him. But this year the England left back returned to form. He made 20+ appearances in the Premier League for the first time since the 2015-16 season. His defensive numbers were lower this year—2.8T+I per appearance this season as opposed to 4.4 in 2015-16 and an astonishing five in the 2014-15 season. In this case, however, the numbers are likely deceptive. The 2014-15 numbers are inflated by the fact that Spurs midfield was a disaster and the backline wasn’t much better—the most common defensive pairing that year was Jan Vertonghen and Federico Fazio with Vlad Chiriches making the third most appearances of any Spurs center back. The 2015-16 season, meanwhile, was when Spurs ran a consistent narrow 4-2-3-1 that only worked because of the massive performances put in on a weekly basis by Rose and Walker to play as both fullbacks and wingers while Tottenham’s wide forwards tucked into central attacking roles.

With a much more stable back line this season and a more possession-based attack than what we saw in Pochettino’s first year (Spurs actually had the fourth highest possession percentage in England this season) it is not surprising that Rose’s defensive numbers were down relative to his peak seasons.

We also should note that Rose’s surprising flexibility allowed Pochettino to attempt several odd tactical experiments in the season’s dying days as his already depleted squad was further reduced by injuries to Harry Winks, Eric Dier, and Moussa Sissoko.

The primary experiment Pochettino attempted was a hybrid 3-5-2/4-4-2 system. In the 3-5-2, Rose played as a normal left-sided wingback ahead of Ben Davies, the left-sided center back. In practice, however, Rose ended up playing more of a left midfielder role ahead of a back four that had Davies as left back. What this allowed Spurs to do was get an extra defender on the field as needed without giving up as much going forward.

In fact, depending on how Harry Winks’s race back from surgery progresses in the next several weeks, we may see that system in the Champions League final against Liverpool. Assuming Harry Kane is fit, 10 of Tottenham’s 11 players select themselves (Lloris, Trippier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Rose, Sissoko, Son, Dele, Eriksen, Kane). The only question is who the 11th player will be.

The obvious candidates are Ben Davies, Davinson Sanchez, Harry Winks, Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama, or Lucas Moura. The shape and tactics will be determined largely by who Pochettino picks. Choosing Winks, Dier, or Wanyama would suggest a return to the 4-4-2 diamond that has been the primary shape for much of the season. Davinson Sanchez would mean a 3-5-2 with a light midfield of Sissoko, Dele, and Eriksen behind Kane and Son. Davies, meanwhile, would suggest the flat 4-4-2 with a midfield of Sissoko and Dele flanked by Rose and Eriksen behind Kane and Son.

In any case, Rose’s flexibility may yet be a defining story for this Tottenham team.

Rating: 4 Chirpys

Kieran Trippier

Let’s start with the good. Trippier has been and still is very good on the ball. Though we joke about his pinpoint crosses, the crosses are simply one aspect of Trippier’s general ability on the ball. Indeed, early in the season Trippier was Pochettino’s solution to “how we can progress the ball without Mousa Dembele.” Unfortunately, this required Trippier to consistently take up dangerously advanced positions from which he could not recover in time to assist defensively. One StatsBomb writer saw this problem after only four league games, noting that teams were attacking the Tottenham right flank where Trippier ought to have been. When you combine Trippier’s advanced position with the fact that his defensive instincts are already iffy at best, you end up with an unworkable situation.

You could tell the story this way: Mauricio Pochettino obviously prefers footballers who have a diverse skill set and can play multiple roles. He is, however, gifted enough as a manager to accommodate players with narrower skill sets—he did it with Jay Rodriguez and Victor Wanyama at Southampton. He’s done it again with Wanyama at Spurs and, this season, with Sissoko and Lucas. He tried to do it with Trippier, but generally struggled. Why?

It’s hard to say too definitively, but it probably is this: If there is one area where Pochettino has struggled to accommodate limited players, it is fullback. Because Pochettino favors a narrow attacking band (to assist with the press and also to facilitate quick pass-and-move play between attackers) he needs his fullbacks to supply width. The fullbacks athletic enough to get up and down the wing without sacrificing anything defensively will always be more at home under Pochettino. Trippier, who has some positive qualities, is not that. If the rumors linking him with a move to Napoli are true, the move would suit all parties involved. Trippier will likely fare better in a slower, more technical league while Tottenham will get some appreciable amount of money to reload at right back.

Rating: 2.5 Chirpys

Ben Davies

As Danny Rose’s star has unexpectedly risen again, Davies’ has, by necessity, fallen. The Welsh left back has always been athletically limited in ways similar to Trippier. But Davies also has never risen to Trippier’s level on the ball. The result is that his career at Spurs has been defined as being a basically replacement level left back who will give you roughly 25 decent performances a year but is also capable of defensive errors that could cost you a game or two each season. Though he enjoyed a run in the first team in the early portion of the season, Davies has only had six starts since March.

That being said, there is little reason to expect any major changes next season at left back for Spurs. Rose is almost certainly returning and will be the preferred starter. Davies will continue as the rotation left back. Tottenham has other areas of need and the Rose-Davies combination is not weak enough to justify spending time searching for a left back that could be better focused on midfield, right back, and potentially center back or striker.

Rating: 2.5 Chirpys

Serge Aurier

Speaking purely in footballing terms, Aurier seemed like a good signing for the club when he arrived before last season from PSG. Pochettino loves athletic, quick fullbacks who can get up and down the wing so they can supplement the typically narrow attack and also assist defensively. Aurier has the physical tools to be that kind of player.

At this point, however, it seems unlikely that he’ll actually become that kind of player. In many ways, Aurier is reminiscent of AVB-era Kyle Walker: an undeniably athletic right back who lacks the defensive nous and decision-making required to become truly elite. But unlike Walker, who matured into the best right back in the Premier League and arguably the best right back of the decade in English football, Aurier never seemed to improve. He is as turnover prone now as he was at arrival. His defensive judgment is still poor. And he seemingly has been exiled by Mauricio Pochettino and looks set to leave the club this summer. If he does, it will be the close on a two-year experiment that likely never should have been attempted.

Rating: 2 Chirpys

Juan Foyth

There has always been a bit of Vlad Chiriches about Tottenham’s young Argentinian center half. So it wasn’t necessarily surprising to see Foyth moved out to right back at season’s end. The team needed someone to play there, and by moving Foyth out there the team could both highlight his excellent ability on the ball and make his penchant for one catastrophic error per match a little less dangerous to the team.

In his limited time at right back Foyth basically performed as expected. On the one hand, his red card against Bournemouth was awful and characteristic of the sort of mental mistakes that Foyth must cut out of his game to take the next step in his development. On the other, his ability to progress the ball and his general confidence in possession is a major tool. Pochettino has already shown with Trippier and Toby Alderweireld that he is happy to utilize defenders as primary ball progressers. So we may have seen some hints at Foyth’s future development in the season’s final weeks—assuming he can cut out the mental mistakes.

Rating: 3.5 Chirpys