Tottenham’s Failing Engine: Spurs’ Issues in Central Midfield


Central midfield has been a position in flux for Tottenham for a few seasons now. Ever since the sale of Luka Modric to Real Madrid in 2012, Spurs have lacked a star presence in the engine room. Players like Sandro, Moussa Dembele, Paulinho, Nabil Bentaleb, and Ryan Mason all have featured in Spurs’ double pivot over the last few seasons, but most of those names have disappointed in their performances. Spurs were never going to be able to directly replace Modric with a talent just as bright. For instance, I do not think Spurs could go out and sign, say, human supernova Paul Pogba. Heading into the crucial summer transfer market, Spurs must sign at least one quality central midfielder in order to improve on their team for next season, as opposed to in summer’s past, when failed signings littered Spurs’ transactions.

Take, for example, Paulinho. He performed extremely well at the Confederations Cup in 2013 for Brazil. Former coach Andre Villas-Boas was able to purchase the Brazilian for a £17.1 million fee. Most Spurs fans expected Paulinho to shine, however, he immediately was underwhelming and eventually was moved out of the starting lineup. The box-to-box presence viewed at the Confederations Cup has not appeared in North London. Paulinho instead has seemed passive since his insertion into the team, not supplying attacking impetus or defensive cover.

Next up to consider are a few younger players who were bought but have never received any real playing time: Etienne Capoue and Benjamin Stambouli. Both of these players were supposed to be defensive midfielders for Spurs. However, neither of these players actually have contributed anything to the side. Capoue has a lot of potential, but he was bought by Villas-Boas, not Mauricio Pochettino. As soon as Capoue had a slight injury problem, he was out of the first team, and has not reappeared. While he is an excellent destroyer, he is probably not quick enough for Pochettino’s system. Stambouli, on the other hand, was bought by Pochettino, but in the little playing time he has received, he has not impressed.

Then there are the youth products. Because none of the senior purchases bought by Spurs have held a starting place this season, Pochettino has been forced to call upon Nabil Bentaleb and Ryan Mason to play the majority of the games so far. While both are young, neither has had a very consistent season. Mason, for one, while very enthusiastic, does not have the technical ability or positional disciple to play on a team at the level of Spurs.

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On the other hand, Bentaleb has displayed flashes of the potential that had him named to the Algerian World Cup squad in 2014. However, playing alongside the even less experienced Mason has not helped the Algerian’s performances. He is technically proficient and reads the game well, but he does not shield the backline like a true defensive midfielder, nor does he supply assists and shooting opportunities like a number 10. He is, like Paulinho before him, an in-between midfielder.

However, sometimes playing an in-between is just fine. For years Manchester United have gotten along fine with playing Michael Carrick in the middle of the park. Carrick offers nothing extraordinary as a player other than his patient passing ability. Of course, he had the right players next to him in the Red Devils’ midfield- Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher, among others. United also had spending power, coaching, and a surrounding talent level that all far surpasses Spurs’ current abilities. But it does show that with the right player supporting him, an in-between central midfielder can flourish.

So, who is that player who will allow Bentaleb to flourish for Spurs? He is almost certainly not on the roster. While Paulinho has a lot of talent, and has seemed a good fit with Bentaleb at times, including during last weekend’s 3-1 victory over Newcastle, he does not possess the defensive skills required to really support Bentaleb. What Bentaleb requires is a destroying midfielder, a true No. 6, who will allow Bentaleb to play a little further up the field where he is more comfortable.

One name in particular comes to mind: Morgan Schineiderlin. The Southampton player would be a perfect defensive midfielder for Spurs. Not only does he have a ton of talent, he has also played for Pochettino before, meaning he knows his preferred system. Able to tackle, pass, and keep a good shape, Schineiderlin would be a huge addition for Spurs.

But it is certainly possible Spurs do not get their man. Make no mistake, Pochettino wants his former charge working for him again. But Spurs have failed before when an obvious transfer candidate has appeared before them (Joao Moutinho). Really, over anything else, Spurs central midfield flux is just as much an indictment of Spurs’ transfer policy and coaching flux as it is the talent on the field. Spurs boast World Cup veterans and quality youth; once in a while they should be put in a position to succeed. The constant acquisition of midfielders has never allowed any of them to settle. Maybe, if given enough run in the side, Capoue would be a sure starter by now. Also, the many center midfielders who have played for the team makes it seem like Spurs’ front office cannot properly identify talent. They overreacted to Paulinho’s Confederations’ Cup run, shelled out a ton of money for him, and then watched as he did not meet incredibly unrealistic expectations.

Hopefully, this summer Spurs will identify the proper midfield talent out there like Schneiderlin and purchase someone who can really make a difference. Or, they could get Pogba. That would be cool, I guess.