Tottenham’s Tom Carroll Era Begins

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 /

Perhaps that title overstates it a bit. Tom Carroll, after all, has been with the club for years. The England Under-21 midfielder has patiently waited for his chances, either on loan or occasionally with Tottenham’s first team, and just not done enough to earn a more permanent place. At 23-years-old, that ‘promising’ label he’s been stuck with since his days in the academy is one he’s rapidly outgrowing. Instead of living up to it on the pitch, he’s been forced to watch a small army of younger players earn starts before him. Players like Nabil Bentaleb, Dele Alli and Eric Dier have all played considerably more minutes that Carroll this season, and it doesn’t seem too long until Alex Pritchard and Harry Winks come along to earn their own. If Carroll is ever going to be anything more than an also-ran in Tottenham’s set-up, this season will be when he needs to prove it.

Mauricio Pochettino and the rest of Tottenham evidently feel the same way. Instead of shuttling Carroll off on another loan this summer, he was retained by the club. He’s started from the bench in each of Tottenham’s Premier League games this season, coming onto the pitch as a sub for a nominal amount of time against Leicester and Sunderland. Unfortunately, barring injury or an unexpected drop in form, his prospects in the league don’t look much better for the foreseeable future. Ryan Mason and Dier have struck a surprising partnership at the center of the pitch and it’s unlikely that Carroll is at the top of the list to dislodge either of them.

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If he was going to earn his keep at all this season, it was always going to be in the various cup competitions Tottenham is due to participate in, the Europa League chief among them. His start Thursday was therefore no shock. What was a shock, though, was what he did with the time allotted to him.

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It’s too easy to dismiss stellar Carroll’s performance by saying that Qarabag FK are the undisputed minnow of Europa League Group J and were always going to be a pushover. For one thing, that pre-match assumption was rather quickly disposed of in the opening minutes Thursday. Qarabag took the lead on a cleverly earned penalty early on and looked like they might hold on for the full 90 minutes. When Tottenham’s goals came thanks to Heung-Min Son, they reemerged from their defensive posture and came close to equalizing on multiple occasions. In the end, possession was nearly level and Qarabag had managed only one shot less than Tottenham’s 16. The scoreline might suggest otherwise, but Qarabag were no pushovers.

In the center of Tottenham’s efforts to both contain and press them was Tom Carroll. Paired alongside Dier in central midfield, he actually outshone his recently vaunted partner. He managed the most touches of any player on the pitch at 109 and completed the most passes at 72. A handful of misses thanks to Qarabag’s own press decreased his accuracy in those passes down to around 80%, but there’s no question that Carroll was the engine that kept Tottenham purring.

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Qarabag’s attempts to counter after reclaiming possession of the ball were dealt a decisive blow by Carroll’s nine successful tackles and one interception. By way of comparison, Dier – Tottenham’s actual holding midfielder – recorded only four tackles and no interceptions on his time on the pitch. That disparity was mostly thanks to the fact that Carroll was up against Qarabag’s best player on the night, attacking midfielder Richard Almeida. He was simply given more opportunities to stop Qarabag’s forward press that was so often led by Almeida. That he was able to do so, however, is a testament to Carroll’s versatility on the pitch.

As good of a show as Carroll put on Thursday, there are still obstacles. The aforementioned glut of talented young midfield options Tottenham suddenly has at its disposal is the biggest of them, but there is another factor that has plagued Carroll since his career began. At 5’8, Carroll was the shortest player in Tottenham’s starting XI besides Danny Rose. In a league that values brawn and physicality as much as the Premier League, the perception is that Carroll might not be able to stamp his authority on central midfield. In positions like fullback or attacking midfielder size might not be as big of an issue. For Carroll and other midfielders who are expected to do a bit of everything – clever passing and the occasionally meaty tackle – such factors ostensibly matter a lot more.

Now of course, Barcelona teams are regularly the shortest in Europe, and that doesn’t stop them from being the best. Arsenal’s holding midfielder Francis Coquelin – only a centimeter taller than Carroll per WhoScored – has faced similar criticism for his perceived lack of physical presence and has defied that criticism time and time again. Perhaps there’s still a chance for Carroll to make his own mark and have it stick.

Forthcoming games against Monaco and Anderlecht in the Europa League will likely be Carroll’s next big opportunities, and should prove to be even sterner tests that Qarabag. If he can play his way through those midfields – closer to English standards, if not yet there exactly – then maybe he’s got a chance to show his mettle in the Premier League.

Next: Mauricio Pochettino Can Lead Tottenham To Success