Tottenham Struggle Without Eriksen

Jul 27, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur players play shuffleboard at the MLS All-Star welcome reception at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 27, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur players play shuffleboard at the MLS All-Star welcome reception at Union Station. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

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Saturday’s dispiriting 1-1 draw away to Leicester City probably gives Tottenham more credit than the team deserves. Despite putting up superior numbers – 58% possession, 19 shots to Leicester’s 13 – Spurs never reached the dominance levels they proved themselves capable of over long swaths of the opening games against Manchester United and Stoke City. They struggled at times to get out of their own half in the first 45 minutes, divided down the middle by Ryan Mason and Eric Dier’s failure to find targets for their forward passes over the halfway line.

Even in the second half, where Tottenham finally mustered the energy to pressure for a goal, it mostly seemed like the game was Leicester’s. They patiently sat back in numbers, denied Tottenham’s wide attackers space on the flanks, and contained Harry Kane. With the space opened up by Tottenham’s determination to score, they doubled their shots from the first half, including Mahrez’s leveler after Dele Alli’s goal in the 80th minute.

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It’s easy to image how much Tottenham’s troubles in both halves would have been allayed by the presence of Christian Eriksen in the starting XI. Mason and Dier’s failure to build up play in a meaningful way in the first half – Tottenham played 110 square passes in the game per FourFourTwo’s Statszone, 73 of which happened in the first period – was not about those players’ lack of creativity. Rather, it was down to lack of targets. All four of Nacer Chadli, Érik Lamela, Mousa Dembélé and Kane were pushed so high up that they were easily marked out of the game by Leicester’s layered defense.

The fullbacks were consequently the preferred outlet for the midfield pair. Dier to Walker and Mason to Davies were two of the higher pass combinations in the entire game at 17 and 15 respectively. The problem there, of course, was that Leicester’s fullbacks each had great games, effectively shutting down the wide areas to any kind of build up play.

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The problem was that Tottenham lacked a player in attacking midfield willing to drop back and retrieve the ball in deeper midfield when it’s not reaching him otherwise. In theory, that job should have been Dembélé’s, but the Belgian seemed waiting for a long ball that never came. He almost exclusively received balls on wide right and thus was rendered ineffective by Jeffrey Schlupp’s impressive game.

Eriksen, in contrast, is always finding space for a meaningful pass deeper and more central than Dembélé managed Saturday. What’s more, he can then shuttle the ball forward with some effective passing of his own, making him a crucial playmaker for a side that thrives on quick, accurate distribution, particularly in transition. Without Eriksen, or a player like him, Tottenham looked as if they were playing a 4-2-0-4, with an emphasis on the zero.

Whether it was through more direct play or Leicester’s decision to play for a draw, the second half was much better from Tottenham’s perspective. They pushed the Foxes back and tested their defensive resolve. Still, though, it took 35 minutes of near constant pressure for Tottenham to score off the head of Dele Alli. The angles were all too difficult to find, the build up play constantly stalled by a lack of options.

Eriksen thrives in precisely these kinds of conditions, either through incisive passing or his eye for a narrowly found goal. Without him, Tottenham were forced to field players that – in theory – finish better than they set up. They lacked the fulcrum necessary to find and then build on a lead. In Eriksen’s absence, the team was all blades but no handle.

The Dane was kept out of the matchday squad due to a knee injury sustained in training late in the week. Were he fully fit, it’s safe to assume Alex Pritchard would have played in Eriksen’s stead. The young England U21 star is due to continue his rehabilitation in a Tottenham reserve match against Sunderland on Sunday.

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There were other options available to Mauricio Pochettino, though. Nabil Bentaleb, Tom Carrol or Dele Alli could have started. While they would not have quite equaled Eriksen’s contributions, they are at least capable of producing a similar kind of play ahead of Mason and Dier. Alli’s goal shows that he is also smart enough positionally to score when needed.

Thankfully, it’s safe to assume that the flaws in the team Saturday are glaring enough that they will be addressed before Tottenham’s game against Everton next week. If Eriksen’s injury is long-term – or if his absence has something to do with his rumored link with Juventus – Spurs have plenty of options available to them to plug that hole.

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