For Tottenham Hotspur, 2019-20 was a season of change across the midfield
640 appearances and 18 collective seasons, that is what Tottenham Hotspur lost over the course of about 14 months as the sale of Mousa Dembele in December 2018 was followed by the sales of Christian Eriksen in January 2020 and Victor Wanyama in March 2020. Mix in new blood with Tanguy Ndombele and Giovanni Lo Celso joining Spurs in the Summer of 2019, then Steven Bergwijn and Gedson Fernandes in January of this year. All this change left Spurs a bit off on the season, but still with a lot of room for hope moving forward.
What’s Been Lost in the Midfield
Christian Eriksen had long been the Robin to Harry Kane’s Batman for Spurs, often serving as the main source of creativity. While Giovanni Lo Celso has shown glimpses of similar playmaking ability, Eriksen’s 80 assists with Spurs and 69 goals are a lot to replace. Further, Eriksen was renowned for his marathon-like effort to cover every inch of the pitch. Back in 2016-17 when Spurs were at their Pochettino best Eriksen was noted for covering the most ground per match in the entire league, at nearly 12 km per match. For everything that all the new signings do, they are more known for on-ball talent than athleticism or effort.
So, the main creative outlet and frankly the hardest working Spur midfielder was sold, and we know that that cost. However, losing Wanyama and Dembele may have cost the team even more over the last two seasons. Much is being made of Pierre Hojbjerg being signed by Spurs, mostly because we must replace Wanyama and Dembele, either of which could play the part of the sole defensive/holding midfielder, giving Spurs more bodies for an attack. The loss of this steal along with the all-out effort from Eriksen linking the back to the front offensively and defensively was just too much for Tottenham over the year leaving the goal of a fifth straight appearance in the Champions League out of reach.
What’s Been Gained in the Midfield
Okay, so Spurs lost some steel and some creativity, what came back with these new signings? Unfortunately, after a season for some and half a season for others, for the most part the jury is still out on just how good these new midfielders can be.
Now most fans and pundits alike have pegged Lo Celso for stardom, his ability on the ball both offensively and defensively is quite apparent. However, it did not always translate on the pitch in the games. Lo Celso managed only 2 goals and 3 assists in all competitions, the same assists, and 1 less goal than Eriksen in 9 MORE games and more than 500 more minutes on the field.
It really is not fair to Lo Celso to compare his first season with Spurs to the last of Eriksen’s 7th, but he was supposed to be the like-for-like replacement. Even in his first season, Eriksen had 10 goals and 10 assists in all competitions for the club. Maybe more concerning than the overall production is the Argentine’s motor, which seems to only run about an hour.
Across 37 appearances this season, Lo Celso amassed just under 2,200 minutes, meaning he averaged less than an hour on the pitch per game. Add in the fact that what was often seen when he was starting was a player who was strong in the first half and then faded as the second half went on. Fitness and motor are not great things to be concerned about and were rarely an issue with the man the young Argentine has replaced.
Of course, Lo Celso wasn’t the only addition in the midfield and frankly was neither the biggest name nor biggest spend to come into the midfield training room, that was Tanguy Ndombele. To say Ndombele had an up and down season would be kind. There were some early highs, like beautiful passes in and defending in the pre-season and his opening day goal. However, there were also some injuries, and a lot of them as Ndombele managed only 29 appearances for less than 1500 minutes.
The 49 minutes per appearance from Ndombele is worse than Lo Celso’s showing, making concern even bigger. However, both men are first extremely talented – if Spurs wanted to sell either there would be no shortage of suitors – AND both are incredibly young and living in a foreign country. I think as football fans, we probably do not appreciate enough, just how difficult the transition is for some of these young men.
Lo Celso speaks Spanish as his native tongue and most of what I have seen show his English is still limited. Ndombele speaks French as his home language and while the language may not be as big of a barrier there, being out of his element is. These young men have moved thousands of miles away from their homes, to live in a giant city, where everyone speaks a different language. Let us think about that a minute and think about how we would feel and how well we would each perform. Then take a breath, relax, and remember Heung-Min Son in year 1 with Spurs and what his year 2 and beyond have been and have some faith. Ndombele is going nowhere.
Speaking of faith, that is what Jose Mourinho showed in Daniel Levy in signing Steven Bergwijn – someone Mourinho said he was not looking at – and making it work. Bergwijn is a clear game changer off the bench who, like Lo Celso and Ndombele is only going to get better as he gets more comfortable. This young man and really all three have very bright futures. Finally, where Gedson was not the Fernandes we were all looking for – see Bruno “PK” Fernandes – he is young, seemingly talented, and speaks the same language as the head coach, so some faith might be in order there too.
Overall Midfield Performance
With Dembele, Eriksen, and Wanyama gone; Lo Celso and Ndombele taking time to settle; and Bergwijn and Fernandes just joining in January; this left the team a bit thin at the midfield for much of the campaign.
Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko picked up much of the slack, at least until Sissoko was hurt, leaving Winks as the only Spurs midfielder to play more than 40 matches or more than 3,000 minutes.
Considering there were 51 games for Tottenham totaling some 4600 minutes, for only one midfielder to even play 2/3 of all the minutes available tells us a lot about the transition across the position.
While there was little consistency in who was performing, there was plenty of consistency in terms of missing tackles and being beaten off the dribble as noted in the column on Spurs defense.
Not only was the defense shaky from the lack of cohesion, so too was the offensive contribution. Winks, Ndombele, Eriksen, Sissoko, and Lo Celso accounted for 13 assists in all competitions, which is only 1 more than the 12 Heung-Min Son had. We could add in Dele, Lamela, and Moura – who had 15 assists combined – but those three, like Heung-Min Son, are more a part of the Tottenham attack than they are the midfield.
Moving forward, the performance of this group is going to be defined by two things, how well the four newcomers settle in during year-two and if Spurs can bring in some steel to protect the defense and allow for the freedom that Wanyama and Dembele used to bring. If Tottenham Hotspur can do that, this group will settle and the performance from this past season will be an anomaly.