In Sunday’s 2-3 home loss to Wolves, Tottenham Hotspur manager Jose Mourinho shook up his lineup a bit, opting to start in a back three that included two of his fastest central defenders — Davinson Sanchez and Japhet Tanganga — and anchored by Eric Dier. The inclusion of Dier over Toby Alderweireld was a curious one at the time and remains so, although there was some indication that Toby was being rested for the FA Cup match mid-week.
Despite the loss, Dier got a shout-out specifically from his manager, Jose Mourinho, for his defensive performance in the back three. While we can certainly disagree with Mourinho about Dier’s overall performance (and many of you will), the fact remains that at least publicly Mourinho was quite pleased with Eric’s effort against Wolves.
Perhaps most interestingly, in comments to the press after the match Dier admitted that he sees himself as a central defender and not a defensive midfielder. Apparently, he’s held this opinion for a while now, even going back to Pochettino’s tenure, but hasn’t spoken publicly about it because he didn’t want to rock the boat.
“It’s obviously very nice [of Mourinho] and that’s the position [center back] I see myself playing. That’s where I see my future.
”I was happy to be able to play [on Sunday], obviously very nice of the manager speaking that way about me. Obviously the most important thing is the team to win games and we haven’t done that.”
”I have always been very politically correct on the subject because of many different reasons but I’ve come to a… It’s been something that isn’t new for me. The old manager knew where I stood for a long time about position and centre-back is where I see my future and I think where I can be the best I can be.
”With Pochettino, I started to play there this season, in the two games before he left, and I’m happy I got the chance to play there under Mourinho.”
As fans we’re free to argue about Dier’s performances, which on balance, uhhhhh, haven’t been great. Dier seems to have lost a step of pace sometime in the past two seasons, and while he’s had his moments overall he has looked pretty fragile, especially when played as a central defensive midfielder. And that’s not good considering he’s the only player Spurs really have at that position!
Dier was signed by Pochettino as a young central defender, and his first season with Spurs he split his time between there and right back. It wasn’t until the preseason before the 2015-16 season that Pochettino and Spurs started experimenting with playing him farther up the pitch in midfield, a position in which he was comfortable dropping deep into the back line to defend as needed.
Spurs already have a good number of central defenders — Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sanchez have emerged as the first choice for Mourinho this season, and Dier would slot into the mix along with Jan Vertonghen, Tanganga, and ostensibly Juan Foyth. Vertonghen’s performances, like Dier’s, have dropped this season, and Tanganga is young and inexperienced. Foyth appears to be in the doghouse and could leave this summer. Dier, however, is supposedly still in the prime of his career, and the former’s struggles might lead to more opportunities for Dier in defense.
Despite Dier’s wishes, in the 20 matches he’s started in all competitions this season, he’s been played in midfield 15 times, and only 5 times as a defender. Some of that is a little nebulous considering his propensity to drop into the back line a needed, but it is notable.
I honestly don’t know if using him primarily as a central defender will improve his performances and make him more of a useful cog in Spurs’ defensive machine. Based on the pretty shambolic defensive performance against Wolves on Sunday, I have some doubts. However, it sure seems like that’s the direction that Eric would like to go. Sounds like Mourinho’s coming around to his way of thinking as well.