Since Tottenham Hotspur decided to cut ties with Mauricio Pochettino in November 2019, the club has staggered across three different managerial reigns, trying to adapt to each particular manager by bringing in players that were supposed to add competition and improve the quality of the squad. Despite the “painful rebuild” that Pochettino had mentioned prior to his departure, the reality is that the goal-scoring and attacking burden has time and time again fallen on the duo of Harry Kane and Heung-min Son no matter which manager has been on the touchline.
Just a few seasons ago, Spurs’ attacking output was deadly, with both Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli in form to assist with Kane and Son up top [Editor’s note: DESK!]. Sure, there have been some sparkles here and there from players like Lucas Moura or even Steven Bergwijn, and Gareth Bale came in for a quick loan spell to help with goal scoring in 2020-21. However, no player in recent seasons has come into the fold to consistently be an integral asset in Spurs’ attack. Regardless of what shape they were in or how tactically they would set up, Spurs needed to find a more viable solution to play alongside Kane and Son up the pitch.
That viable solution is turning out to be Dejan Kulusevski, who joined the club in January on an 18-month loan-to-buy deal from Juventus. In Italy, Kulusevski dazzled and was ultimately a one-man show at Parma, keeping them at the time afloat in the country’s top flight. That play earned him a move to Juventus, but when Massimiliano Allegri came in looking for his team to play in a more pragmatic nature, Kulusevski’s growth hit a skid. That means when he joined Spurs, still at 21 years of age, he was considered something of an enigma.
While it has been reported that Spurs were really trying to get the signature of now-Liverpool starlet Luis Díaz, Kulusevski has already proven to be an astute signing. There has been speculation that the January signings of Kulusevski and Rodrigo Bentancur was due to Managing Director of Football Fabio Paratici calling in some favors at his old club, but both have immediately come in and improved this Spurs side.
So let’s talk about Kulusevski, and before we get into his role in this Spurs squad and how his skillset is helping players all around him, let’s discuss his profile. I do want to mention that this was a player that I had pegged as one for Spurs’ interest a while ago now, dating back to the EUROs. My thinking then was that Spurs should really invest in a left-footed attacking player and the fact that Paratici had knowledge of him provided for quite an easy fit.
Before Kulusevski’s signing, Spurs were persisting with Lucas as their third attacker. And while the Brazilian forward has had some magical moments at Spurs and he impressed at the start of Conte’s reign, the inconsistencies are far too commonplace in his game. In a Conte side that is predicated on use of patterns and stylistics, Lucas’ penchant for taking on defenders and doing things on his own has led to some wonder goals, but it has also led to a lot of dispossessions and affordances of space where Spurs’ defense has been exposed. Putting Kulusevski into that right-sided attacking third has resulted in Spurs having a player in that position who, albeit not nearly as quick or athletic as Lucas, can occupy space, provide more consistent goal threat and give defenses other things to think about.
We have already seen how Kulusevski can be utilized as a versatile attacker. While he has mostly played in the as the right-sided attacker in the 3-4-3, he has played as a number ten when Spurs have moved to a back four and he even slotted at right wingback when Spurs were chasing a goal a few weeks ago against Burnley. This is all happening for a player who is still so young and so new to the Premier League. A lot has been made about Spurs’ incomings in recent seasons and while it is still early days, the transition to the Premier League has almost come easy to Kulusevski.
In recent seasons, Spurs fans have watched different types of players try to adjust to different types of managers by playing in different types of systems. The involvement of Kulusevski has led to a reliable player who can play in many different roles as well as one who makes the players around him better.
While Spurs improved their squad in January with the two Juventus incomings, they were left a little short at the position of right wingback. That is why Conte and the club pursued Adama Traoré throughout January. However, the club did not end up adding at the position, leaving the duo of Emerson Royal and Matt Doherty to compete for the position, unless Conte wanted to convert a forward like Bergwijn into the spot.
In recent games, Doherty has put in some monster performances at the position and, as mentioned in my prior article on wingbacks, I don’t think it a coincidence at all that Doherty’s uptick in form has come at the same time Kulusevski has gained a larger involvement in the first team. Despite his age, Kulusevski’s ability to read the game and hold down his own attacking area has been a catalyst that has allowed Doherty to get forward and do what he is best at — popping up in dangerous spaces in the box. Again, this is all due to the influence of a 21-year-old who has been with the club for just five weeks.
Now, Kulusevski’s lack of top-end speed has led to many concerns about his profile. In a league where pacy, quick wingers are at a premium (see Mohamed Saleh, Sadio Mané, Raheem Sterling, Raphinha, Allan Saint-Maximin, etc.), Kulusevski’s gangly and unorthodox playing style provides for a bit of a discernible difference. But Kulusevski’s strengths — his creativity from the wing and his plus technical repertoire — makes up for his speed deficit. In a system that utilizes attacking patterns the way Conte’s does, Spurs are far more dangerous with Kulusevski in their attack than they are with Lucas.
Even defensively, Kulusevski has been quite resourceful. He is no slouch and is full of energy to hold his own defensively. And if Spurs retain possession, his quick decision-making combined with his accurate passing of the ball and ability to link up play with Kane and Son has led to a bevy of goals on the counter-attack. Then, there was his goal against Leeds where Kulusevski literally took out 2-3 defenders to create a tight angle and was able to provide a blistering finish with his favored left foot.
In just six league games, Kulusevski has already chipped in with two goals and three assists. There will undoubtedly be some bumps in the road for Kulusevski as he continues to get acclimated to the league and defenders and clubs start to key in more on him and understand his tendencies. But this loan deal looks to be arguably Paratici’s best bit of business outside of perhaps that of Cristian Romero. Due to Kulusevski’s influence, Spurs have become a far more complete and coherent team. It is pretty remarkable considering how cheap it was to bring him in, and how important he can and will continue to prove to be in this stretch run till the end of the season.
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