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Cuti Romero and Nuno’s defensive lineup conundrum

Romero is a sure-fire eventual starter for Nuno Espirito Santo. The question is — who does he replace?

Tottenham Hotspur Training Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

Returning from a somewhat shambolic international break, Nuno finds himself in an interesting and surprising position. Sure, Spurs being top of the table three games in is surprising enough, but you’d be hard pressed to find Spurs fans who foresaw Eric Dier and Davinson Sanchez’ improvement in form.

After a calamitous season for Tottenham at the back, investing in the centerback position became the top priority for Spurs. Cristian Romero, Serie A’s best centerback last season, was recruited and expected to walk into the team - but so far his only meaningful minutes have been against Europa Conference League minnows Pacos de Ferreira.

Fact is no one, not even Nuno, could have expected Tottenham’s veteran centerbacks to step up and perform at the level that they have so far. Romero represents a hefty investment, and, frankly, is too good to be a rotation player. He will be starting league games soon enough, but the question is who does he replace in Spurs’ back two? First we’ll take a look at Sanchez’ and Dier’s individual roles in Nuno’s system, and compare it to Romero’s own strengths in Atalanta.

Davinson Sanchez - Nuno’s Aggressor

After some eye-catching performances for Colombia in Copa America this summer, Sanchez has come back to Tottenham looking like a much more confident player. The responsibilities that Nuno has given him exacerbate this, as they play to his strengths without putting too much of the spotlight on him.

Herein lies the main difference between Sanchez’ deployment under Mourinho and Tottenham’s new manager. Sanchez’ most obvious strength is his athleticism, as such The Special One relied on him to cover the space in behind Tottenham’s shape if they were caught up-field. Both Dier and Sanchez were instructed to sit deeper if the opposition were to break out, putting them in the unenviable position of running back towards their goal again and again. There’s no doubt that these occurrences are inevitable in a football match, but Tottenham’s centerbacks were exposed consistently in this way. To put it succinctly, Sanchez’ strength, pace, and agility were used in a conservative manner that only invited more pressure onto him.

Things are different under Nuno. With the return of a high(er), well executed press and a mid block instead of the low block, it’s much more important that Tottenham’s centerbacks push up high to squeeze the amount of room that the opposition has to play the ball. Tightly marking any outlets, Spurs are consistently pressing and counterpressing to force the opposition into errors.

Sanchez is tasked with being an aggressive centerback that does not allow his marker a moment to settle the ball in his feet.

As the game against Watford wound down, Tottenham’s defensive structure began to slowly come apart. Passing lanes through the middle began to appear - Sanchez’ work rate did not suffer however, and Watford’s forwards were unable to hold up play.

When Sanchez steps up, more often than not he is aided by Tottenham’s midfield to compress the space the opposition have available to them.

Here Sanchez steps to ensure Watford’s forward has no time to pick his head up and make a reliable pass. Both Hobjerj and Skipp are covering passing options, while Dele stands ready to press if his mark receives a pass.

Although he’s not the most reliable header of the ball, he can be useful in ensuring that the opposition cannot progress the ball through the air either. Compared to other Spurs players, he has a unique way of getting very tight with his marker and dangling a leg out to intercept the ball before it reaches its target.

Again against Watford, we see Sanchez stepping up to contest the ball high up the pitch. Tottenham’s midfielders and Tanganga are nearby to win the second ball.

Sanchez’ stats also provide credence to the idea that his role has shifted under Nuno. He already has 32 pressures in three games, with 12 resulting in Tottenham winning possession within 5 seconds of the pressure being applied. At his current rate, he will wrap up the season with 350 pressures at least. Last season he recorded 155 (FBRef).

Eric Dier - Nuno’s Safety Man

If Sanchez is constantly stepping up and leaving a gap of space behind him, it stands to reason that Nuno would want someone that can cover that space (although the necessity of this is something we will cover later). Eric Dier is that man who is charged with tidying up everything at the back.

Sanchez steps up to follow his marker but the Watford man is able to get his head on the ball and flick it forwards. Dier is there covering his man.

It should be noted that Dier and Sanchez have wildly different games - one likes to get stuck in and win the ball back while the other (Dier) is much more about positional play; cutting off passing lanes, delaying a forward move, or blocking shots. Dier has yet to record a single tackle in the Premier League while Sanchez has made 8 - he’s not a deadweight by any means (as opposed to past seasons), so although he is far less active than Sanchez defensively he’s been a big part of why Spurs are yet to concede in the Premier League.

Here we see Dier deeper than the rest of the backline - his sole goal is to stop the low cross from being whipped in, especially across the danger area just in front of the goalkeeper. Hobjerg is tracking a Watford player deep into the penalty area while Sanchez and Tanganga both have an eye on the man in the far post.

We see this further up the pitch as well. Dier has only 7 pressures this season, with 2 of them having occurred in the middle third. His role is completely different to Sanchez’ - some might think that’s a good thing, but I wonder if there is room for another centerback in Sanchez’ mold without giving up safety in the back.

Enter Cuti Romero

Romero had an outstanding season at Atalanta last year, and he is by far the crown jewel of Tottenham’s transfer window. If he come close to being as influential at Tottenham as he was in Atalanta he will, without exaggeration, help Tottenham’s defensive line reach new peaks. The conundrum that Nuno has right now is that he plays the exact same way as Davinson Sanchez.

Against Parma, we see Romero stepping up high to disrupt the recipient of a floated pass. Atalanta’s back three system ensures that there is a man to cover the space behind him should the opposition keep possession.

Atalanta had the second lowest xGA of Serie A last season at 43.5 - of course, there’s more to their phenomenal defensive system than one player, but the fact that he was voted Defender of the Year while racking up numbers that put him in the elite level (2.97 tackles /90 compared to Sanchez’ 1.3) is no coincidence. Like Nuno and Sanchez, Gasperini quickly identified that Romero has a penchant for aggression and winning the ball - so he decided to use him in a proactive manner that created a massive benefit for Atalanta’s pressing system.

Again, Romero steps into midfield to press his mark. Keeping the opposition on the backfoot is key to both Nuno’s and Gasperini’s gameplan.

Romero ended last season with 486 pressures and a 35% success rate. Tellingly, throughout his three years at Atalanta, the number of pressures he completed increased year over year. In the midfield, for example, he completed 96 pressures in his first season, 163 in his second, and 236 in his third and final. Romero’s clear ability to squeeze the pitch blends perfectly with Nuno’s pressing system, and to use him in any other way would be a disservice to the Argentinian.

Dier or Sanchez?

First, Nuno has to be commended for sticking with Sanchez and Dier - after a big money buy there’s pressure from the fans (and internal stakeholders, surely) to see the player in action. But given the form that Tottenham’s centerbacks have started in, it’d be harsh to give away a starting spot right now. It’s only three games in, and whoever gets replaced out of Dier and Sanchez might just be due to a dip in form, but it poses an interesting strategic question as well.

Romero can slot in for Sanchez easily enough, but would it be possible for Sanchez and Romero to play at the same time? I’m not convinced it’s a bad idea. The main concern would be the man covering the space behind the centerback who pushes up to pressure or intercept the ball.

But just because Sanchez and Romero are adept at that does not mean that they would blindly rush in towards the same player - the ball near centerback pressures while the ball far centerback covers, easy enough. Admittedly, Romero has rarely played on the left hand side, so it’s unclear whether this would work. But it would be exciting to see Sanchez and Romero squeeze the opposition so tightly that they are simply unable to get out of their own half. In fact, maybe Sanchez and Romero could start against teams that are less technically adept (theoretically getting higher returns from pressing and reducing the amount of playable space) while Romero - Dier could start against higher caliber teams (whose more consistent threat would necessitate a no nonsense centerback).

Spurs fans and staff alike can agree that this is a great problem to have. As the season progresses it will be interesting to see what ramifications this change might have further up the pitch - until then we’ll have to wait and see.