When Argentina lined up against Venezuela in the quarterfinals of the Copa America on Friday, there was a tactical surprise in the team sheet. Manager Lionel Scaloni opted to name young Tottenham Hotspur defender Juan Foyth in the starting XI in just his fourth senior cap overall. However, Foyth didn’t start the match as a center back, his natural position, but as a right back in a back four formation.
And he was brilliant! In a 2-0 clean sheet win for Argentina, Foyth had eye-opening statistics for the Albiceleste in a relatively new position.
Juan Foyth (21) vs Venezuela:— Wass (@wason00) June 29, 2019
Minutes played: 95
Pass accuracy: 95%
Long balls: 2/2
Tackles won: 5/6
Duels won: 7/13
A solid performance pic.twitter.com/VvOU0ux5jv
Única de peligro de Venezuela viene de la espalda de Tagliafico! @dflatorre nefasto
It was a surprising move for Scaloni and Argentina, and a confidence building match for Foyth. It also has Tottenham fans talking — could Juan Foyth possibly be switching positions for Spurs from center back to right back?
Friday’s Copa America match was not the first time that Foyth has been shifted wide right. Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino used Foyth as an emergency rotational wingback on two prior occasions late in this past season — in a 1-0 league loss at Manchester City and a week later in a 1-0 home loss to West Ham. In both matches, Kieran Trippier was being rested for the Champions League, Serge Aurier was injured or unfit, Kyle Walker-Peters was named to the bench, and Eric Dier was needed in midfield.
In both matches, Foyth was surprisingly good in the role. Against City he completed 24/29 (including one chance created), had seven tackles, was 3/5 in take-ons, and played a composed defensive match against the eventual Premier League champions. His stats were slightly less gaudy against the Hammers — 37/45 passing, but with 6/7 take-ons, 5/6 tackles, and 1 big chance (according to Opta) created. In both matches Foyth was tasked to play a simpler, more defensive match and wasn’t asked to get forward in the same way that Trippier and Aurier does. But despite the two losses, they were encouraging performances though not entirely without flaws.
Now, factor in the transfer rumors swirling around Tottenham’s current stable of right backs — Kieran Trippier is strongly linked with a move to Serie A with Juventus and Napoli both considering a bid for him this summer. The club was also said to be open to bids for Serge Aurier, though his recent injury could scupper those plans. And there have been rumors that Spurs are open to selling or loaning academy product Kyle Walker-Peters to Crystal Palace as a replacement for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who completed a move to Manchester United.
All this, combined with relatively few rumors linking Spurs with the purchase of a new right back outside of some tenuous links to Norwich’s Max Aarons and some background murmurs that Spurs might experiment with new formations in preseason training this summer, presents a tantalizing possibility that Foyth might be in the mix as a rotational fullback at Tottenham next season.
It’s not the first time that Pochettino has done something like this either. Eric Dier was used primarily as a central defender and right back in his first year at the club during the 2014-15 season. In the summer of 2015, we at Carty Free were one of the first to suspect that Pochettino was using the summer closed-door friendlies to test out whether Dier could play as a defensive midfielder, a role that he has been used in to this day. Lucas Moura joined Spurs ostensibly as a winger, but has been transitioned under Pochettino to play as a striker, often being deployed as the tip of the spear where he can run at opposing defenses. Heck, even Danny Rose has been played as a defensive midfielder on a number of occasions, though no one would say that Danny’s future is away from left back.
Pochettino loves his positionally flexible players, and he’s not at all opposed to putting players in new positions where he thinks they’ll be most useful. Foyth is very comfortable with the ball at his feet and is unafraid to take players on, something that is both admirable and at times panic-inducing. He’s naturally right footed, has good speed and an inclination to push the ball forward out of the box, all skills that could suit him well as a fullback.
All of this is reading the tea leaves at a point in the season where there is a whole lot of uncertainty. It’s speculation — we don’t know much at this point about what Spurs’ squad will even look like when the new season begins. Spurs have clearly been focusing on fixing the midfield with their transfer dealings thus far, with moves for Tanguy Ndombele, Jack Clarke, and Giovani Lo Celso. That doesn’t mean that Spurs aren’t looking or won’t look for right backs to purchase later in the window.
We also don’t know for sure that Trippier will be sold, that Aurier won’t be healthy in time for preseason, or what the heck Spurs will do with Walker-Peters, whom Pochettino clearly doesn’t fully trust. Toby Alderweireld might leave, or might stay, which opens up a spot in the center of the defensive line. And going into a Premier League season in which Spurs want to challenge for a title with an untested 21-year old converted center back would be a pretty big gamble, even if he’s second choice behind Aurier or Walker-Peters.
It’s also possible that Pochettino sees Juan Foyth as a future utility man, much like Dier — a player able to slot into multiple positions based on need. His skill set is one that is suitable for center back, fullback, and (yes) even defensive midfield. He’s young enough that he can develop into a cromulent player at any, or all, of those positions. Fullback might simply be an arrow in his quiver, not a new full time position.
As a right back, Foyth would probably be more of a defensive player and less likely to make Trippier-esque runs into the attacking third. That’s probably fine, assuming that Spurs fix their midfield this summer and switch to progressing the ball more centrally the way Pochettino prefers. Foyth’s defensive instincts as a center back will also serve him well as a fullback.
We also know that Foyth is young, likes to take risks, and is prone to mistakes, as we saw last season when he gave up several penalties (some of them dubious decisions) on challenges in the box. These are real concerns, no matter where he’s playing, and he’ll need to stamp those out of his game, but at age 21 there’s no reason to think that he couldn’t do that. And if you’re going to make those kinds of mistakes, it’s better to do them on the right side instead of in the box. I’m also not convinced that Foyth is any more mistake prone than Danny Rose or Kyle Walker were when they were younger and first breaking into Tottenham’s first team.
We may possibly glean more about Pochettino’s plans for Foyth when he returns for preseason training after the Copa America. What we do know is that here’s zero chance of Foyth starting at right back, or anywhere, for Spurs in their opening league match — he’s suspended for the first two matches of next season after picking up a straight red card against Bournemouth in Spurs’ penultimate game.
Nobody’s saying that Foyth is going to be a regular starter at right back for Spurs next season, but there’s intriguing evidence now that Foyth could see some more minutes on the right for Spurs in the Premier League and cup competitions. That’s good, because he needs those minutes. Pochettino clearly loves Foyth, and RB a role that he appears to have a knack for. It’s certainly worth watching the rest of Argentina’s games in the Copa to see if Scaloni thinks so as well and if that might have an effect on Pochettino’s plans for Foyth. There’s lots of uncertainty at the moment, but keep an eye on those tea leaves.