It has been long documented that the defense has been Tottenham Hotspur’s Achilles heel since bottoming out under Mauricio Pochettino at the start of 2018-19 season. At the time, Spurs’ primary first-choice centerbacks consisted of a 30-year-old Toby Alderweireld, a 32-year-old Jan Vertonghen, a 25-year-old Davinson Sánchez who had been struggling to find form and 25-year-old Eric Dier who had played most of his career primarily as a defensive midfielder.
For years, Spurs were known as a side that played a free-flowing, attacking style that featured a high press. In the Pochettino era, the ethos was all about bravery and while many supporters will remember the high goal returns, it was the defense that was arguably most impressive for Spurs. At a time, Tottenham could practically put together a Premier League team of the year with their back line alone, thanks to the Belgian partnership of Alderweireld and Vertonghen as well as a fullback duo of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. While Pochettino and his crew guided the club to its most successful period in recent memory, the first-team squad became stagnant and the two sides parted ways.
When José Mourinho came in, the relationship started out OK. But as all Mourinho relationships do, the rapport eventually soured and Spurs’ mistakes at the back and penchant for blowing leads became the signature of the Portuguese’s time at Spurs.
It is heavily documented that Mourinho wanted world-class defender Rúben Dias. Eventually, Spurs were unwilling to pay the fee required for the defender and Tottenham turned their attention to Championship defender Joe Rodon from Swansea City.
Failing to add that difference-maker in defense that they needed, last season Spurs never really established a settled defensive partnership, consistently chopping and changing the back line based on form and availability of the option at hand.
To Tottenham’s credit, the club did do a decent job in refreshing the squad while lowering the average age of the squad in the process. This summer, Spurs made a quite a statement by bringing in one of the best young talents in European football in Atalanta’s Cristian Romero to take the place Alderweireld, perhaps due Fabio Paratici’s fondness for and knowledge of the player.
Last season’s Serie A’s Defender of the Year, Romero gave and has given Spurs fans something to dream on. It took some time for the Argentinian, but the addition of a top centerback along with a commitment to better shield the back line of defense by way Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oliver Skipp has led to the improved play of both Dier and Sánchez to start out this current campaign.
It has been roughly two months or so since Romero’s signing, but now that the Argentinian has gotten more minutes under his belt, we are starting to see the talent and natural ability that Romero brings that no other Spurs defender can provide. Despite it being so early on in his Spurs career, it is abundantly clear that Romero’s comfort on the ball paired with his reading of the game puts him head and shoulders above as the club’s best centerback option.
Against Aston Villa, Romero put in quite a good shift. The first 10 or so minutes provided for some rocky touches and erratic passes, but the Argentinian settled in quite nicely, showcasing his athleticism and even providing some accurate long passes to push out the attack and flip the side of play.
We will continue to see more and more of Romero’s game as he gets more minutes under his belt. However, he is already showing himself to have talents that Spurs do not have elsewhere in the defense. He is an aggressive and willing defender who looks to engage and come out of the team’s shape when needed to break up attacks and dispatch loose passes. A lot has been made regarding whether defenders are either ‘dogs’ or ‘cats’. In this example Romero screams ‘dog’.
He is an excellent reader of the game, which enables his aggressive playing nature. Because of this, Romero’s biggest strengths can actually counter the weaknesses of the rest of the defenders at Spurs. When we think of who will play next to Romero, regardless of whether it is Dier, Sánchez, or Rodon, the issue that has consistently plagued Tottenham’s defense has been their decision-making.
Looking at Dier and Sánchez in particular, their indecisiveness has led to many goals that better defenses do not concede. By having a defender like Romero who can sweep and come out to engage, it can allow both Dier and Sánchez to focus on the aspects of their game that they are more suited to. For Dier, it’s aerial duels. For Sánchez, it’s using his frame and athleticism to shrug off defenders and block shots.
I will admit, however, that Romero is not the finished product. As seen by this past weekend with the Ollie Watkins goal, Romero’s best attributes can sometimes lead to a collapse at the back. In this sequence, Romero’s tendency towards aggressive actions led him to attempt a rash challenge that led to a breakdown at the back. However, as Romero gains more experience playing next to Tottenham’s other centerback options, perhaps he will gain more cohesion with others.
Romero is more Vertonghen than Alderweireld. At 6”1’, Romero glides around and can also be impactful in the air. He is quite technical and, as shown by multiple passes on Sunday, has the ability to spray the ball around. Regardless of having Romero in defense, a defense will only be as strong as its weakest link. So while Romero will provide a different type of presence and mentality to a team that has lacked a defensive stalwart in quite some time, he also has the quality to unlock whichever player is next to him. The Argentinian is just a loanee player for now, but it will only be a matter of time until Romero becomes a permanent Tottenham player.
We have seen glimpses of the potential Romero can bring to their backline. Truthfully, it is only a matter of time until he is the week in, week-out starter at centerback. The question remains, however, who will slide in next to him? Let’s take a look at the three likely candidates below.
While Dier has become one of the main scapegoats for Spurs’ defensive frailties among Spurs fans in recent years, the 27-year-old has significantly improved since he returned to central defense about two seasons ago. Used as a defensive midfielder under Mauricio Pochettino, Dier has come under pressure in recent years for his head-scratching decisions as well as his lack of agility in one-on-one defending scenarios.
However, Nuno Espírito Santo has taken a liking to the defender in particular due to his leadership and veteran skills. When we think back to Nuno’s Wolves squad, the comparison for Dier would be Conor Coady. And Dier has come good on the investment, being in the running for Premier League Player of the Month for the month of September. He is not perfect, but Dier has proven to be much sturdier so far in Nuno’s tenure.
Like Dier, Sánchez has also had some questionable moments. However, he fits the criteria of a powerful and athletic centerback that has become more in demand in recent seasons. He has never shown a particular comfort on the ball, but the buzz surrounding Sánchez, since the Copa América tournament over the summer, has been that he has become more confident and assertive.
Up until this point, Dier has been given the choice over Sánchez. However, Spurs’ most athletic centerback combination is Romero and Sánchez by quite a good margin. It has been a turbulent couple of seasons for Sánchez, but the Colombian has progressed a bit more this season in large part due to the increased defensive structure in front of him.
Despite being roughly a year and change into Rodon’s time at Spurs, his status in the club has yet to really transition from ‘prospect’ to a ‘regular first-team starter’. When given the chance, Rodon has looked steady; albeit most of his playing time has come outside of Premier League matches.
A first-choice player at the international level with Wales, Rodon has a good feel for the game and many Spurs supporters have clamored for Rodon simply due to the fact that he provides an unknown aspect. The worry with Rodon for me is that he has now had two full-time managers, three if you consider interim caretaker Ryan Mason, who have yet to give him a run in defense.
Considering Romero’s strengths and weaknesses, his defensive partner should be dictated by the type of opposition the team is facing. When playing a side like Leeds that looks to push forward and expose team’s pace and fitness, a player like Sánchez would bode well. When playing a side like Burnley who looks to set piece you to death, Dier’s prowess in the air and natural physical qualities should see him get the nod.
At this point, now that Rodon can get a consistent run of games in Europe (keep in mind that he was forced off of Spurs’ Europa League squad last season), Nuno should continue to play Rodon in cups and Europa Conference League to see what he can provide and continue his development. Rodon’s qualities are more aligned to Dier and if he can improve his composure on the ball, perhaps he will warrant more first-team attention.
Romero wasn’t supposed to be the only central defender Spurs purchased this summer. The likes of both Jules Koundé and Maxence Lacroix were explored at some point but Spurs’ lack of European competition proved to be detrimental in their recruitment. So while Romero looks to be the business, his long-term partner will just have to wait and Spurs have to march on with either Dier or Sánchez. But what is for sure is that Romero simply has to be one of the first players Nuno names in the starting XI going forward.
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