Who Should Tottenham Start: Danny Rose or Ben Davies?


It’s a question that seems to still be asked ahead of every Tottenham game at this point: will Danny Rose or Ben Davies start at left-back?

So far the answers have tipped in Davies’ favor. He’s played the full 90 minutes in five matches so far this season, while Rose has played three full games.

That the left-back position would be so volatile and subject to rotation comes as something of a surprise for most Tottenham fans. Most other positions have been settled by this point, and if rotation does occur it’s been due to injury or resting.

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It’s mostly confusing due to the fact that Rose seemed to have made the left-back position his own last season. He vastly improved the defensive aspects of his game and continued to be able to provide pace and key passes going forward when Tottenham had possession.

Let’s compare Rose with Cesar Azpilicueta, arguably one of the better left-backs in the Premier League. The Chelsea player featured 29 times in the best defense in the league last term, recording three tackles and two interceptions per game over that period per WhoScored. Rose, by comparison, played 28 games for Tottenham and put up similar defensive numbers: 2.8 tackles and 2.2 interceptions per game.

Now, it should be noted that Rose committed fouls well over twice as often as Azpilicueta. That is a serious issue, one perhaps in part due to how often Tottenham’s open midfield encouraged runs at the defense last term.

In terms of offensive contributions, Rose objectively outplayed Azpilicueta though. The Englishman averaged one key pass per game compared to Azpilicueta’s 0.6, and also managed 0.9 shots per game over the latter’s 0.2. Through those efforts, Rose was able to score three league goals while setting up four assists. Offense like that is rare among full-backs, and yet it seems to come to Rose easily.

So given the quality that Rose put on display last term, why would the left-back position even be in question this term? Part of the answer is that Rose began the season hurt and Davies was forced into the side as a result. He started the first three games of the season until Rose was fit enough to play against Everton in matchday four.

It was thought then that equilibrium would be restored and Rose would be restored to the automatic choice for the starting XI while Davies would drop back down to the understudy role he played for most of last season.

That wasn’t the case. Davies was brought back in for the Premier League games against Sunderland and Crystal Palace, while Rose was kept for the ostensibly less important cup games against Qarabag FK and Arsenal. What about Davies made him the preference in those league games?

If it’s anything, it’s not his numbers. Last season and so far this current one, his defensive and offensive metrics are average compared to what we know Rose is capable of. Instead it likely has more to do with Davies’ clearly more defensive mindset, one that is not as easily quantified as Rose’s efforts tend to be.

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Which isn’t surprising. Tackles and interceptions are fine means to rank players by, but they don’t exist in isolation and might not even be the best tools to use when describing defenders. Perhaps having lower numbers means Davies is actually better at his defensive job than Rose. Perhaps his off-the-ball work and marking are such that he rarely needs to dive into a tackle or step in front of a passed ball.

Sunderland and Palace both presented fairly unique threats on Davies’ wing that probably earned him a start over Rose. Wingers Jeremain Lens and Wilfried Zaha are tricky to deal with, and perhaps Pochettino felt that Davies’ more defensive approach – however hard it is for us to see in the numbers we have access to – would better serve Tottenham in attempting to contain those players.

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Tellingly, the Premier League game Rose did start was against a notoriously narrow Everton side. Rose therefore wasn’t asked to mark much out wide and had plenty of space to move forward in attack. He was simply better suited for that game.

Going forward we can expect to see more of the same. Against teams with dangerous players on the right flank, we can expect to see Davies. Against teams who tend to play their game toward the center of the pitch, Rose will start. This timeshare probably doesn’t make either player too happy, but it must be for the best.

Prior to Wednesday’s loss to Arsenal, Tottenham had managed three clean sheets using an effective rotation at left-back. This could be just another phase of the club’s overhauled – and still evolving – defensive strategy. So long as it continues to bear fruit, Tottenham’s fans and players shouldn’t complain too much.

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