Spurs are mired in a poor patch and must now do without Davinson Sanchez for three Premier League fixtures. Ben McAleer searches for the solution to the north Londoners defensive issues...
"With Sanchez suspended, Dier will need to play at centre-back alongside Jan Vertonghen, yet Spurs then lose a defensive shield and this will only invite pressure on the defence. They can probably make do against Stoke and Brighton, but against Manchester City they'd get torn to shreds."
Tottenham's welcome of APOEL on Wednesday night is a must-win game. The north London side are guaranteed a place in the next round of the Champions League already having successfully topped their group, yet there is more than points at stake in midweek. A 1-1 draw with Watford on Saturday means Spurs have failed to win in four and have only one victory to their name in their last six top-flight outings. Any talk of a title charge has dissipated entirely - once backed at [7.4] to win the title, Spurs are now [220.0].
The 1-0 win over Crystal Palace early last month hinted at a change in mentality for Spurs, with the north London side seemingly able to win ugly. However, Saturday's stalemate at Vicarage Road means they are now as many points behind table toppers Manchester City as they are above relegation threatened pair West Ham and Crystal Palace.
A point over the weekend may not have been the be all and end all - Watford have improved immensely under Marco Silva - yet coinciding with Liverpool's win at Brighton, Spurs are now four points off a top-four spot. Indeed, following the aforementioned with over the Eagles, Spurs were [1.34] to secure a Champions League finish. They're now out at [2.74] to achieve the feat.
Real win has had real consequences
A 3-1 victory over Real Madrid was expected to propel Spurs into a tough run of games, yet the win over the defending European champions took its toll on the squad. Toby Alderweireld's first half hamstring injury was always expected to hinder Spurs, but there is quality in depth at the back to cover for the Belgian's absence, even if they are conceding more Premier League goals per game without the Belgian starting [1.08] than with him [0.63] since the start of last season. However, factor in Victor Wanyama's ongoing knee issues and it's clear the team has a problem.
Alderweireld's injury has forced Mauricio Pochettino to deploy Eric Dier in defence and with Wanyama sidelined, there is no natural holding player to shield the backline. As a result, more pressure is applied to the goal and it's affecting Spurs significantly. Goals shipped per league game have risen from 0.68 last season to 0.87, with Pochettino's side evidently struggling to stem the flow. The Argentine, to his credit, looked to correct the issue at Vicarage Road as he moved away from the three-man defence to a four-man backline, with Dier pushed back into midfield.
Sanchez absence will stretch Spurs
But, as the old saying goes: when it rains, it pours.
Davinson Sanchez's second-half red card means Spurs will be without their big money summer arrival for Premier League for meetings with Stoke, Brighton and runaway league leaders Manchester City.
The Colombian will be missed. Prior to his dismissal at Vicarage Road, the visitors were in relative control of proceedings. Spurs enjoyed 60.7% possession in the opening 50 minutes and had five shots to Watford's three. The return to a back four evidently gave them the solidity that's been lacking of late, even if they conceded to a Christian Kabasele header in the opening exchanges.
Dier back into defence?
Sticking with this system, then, must be the way forward for the time being in order for Spurs to haul themselves out of this rut, but herein lies another issue. With Sanchez suspended, Dier will need to play at centre-back alongside Jan Vertonghen, yet Spurs then lose a defensive shield and this will only invite pressure on the defence. They can probably make do against Stoke and Brighton, but against Manchester City they'd get torn to shreds. The alternative options would be to deploy one of Ben Davies or Serge Aurier alongside Vertonghen or place faith in the inexperienced Juan Foyth.
The other option would be to deploy one of Ben Davies or Serge Aurier alongside Vertonghen. The former may be the more experienced in England, but with Davies at centre-back with Vertonghen, there's a lack of balance at the heart of the backline and it's unlikely Pochettino would opt for two left-footed defenders in this position in a four-man defence.
One of Aurier's greatest strengths is his versatility. While a right-back by trade, the Ivorian is also able to play left-back where required, and he demonstrated this superbly in Spurs' 4-1 win over Liverpool. He too is able to operate at centre-back, yet the 24-year-old is prone to a moment of madness as shown in the 3-2 win at West Ham in September and the 1-1 draw with Real Madrid in October. That being said, his deployment would offer greater balance at the back and allow Dier to operate in midfield.
Argentine Foyth, meanwhile, provides natural cover at centre-back, yet has just 180 minutes of competitive action in England under his belt. It would be a huge show of faith by Pochettino to now thrust him into top-flight action, yet his hand is being forced and it could well be that the 19-year-old makes his Premier League bow sooner than many anticipated.
For the foreseeable future, then, Spurs would be best suited reverting to a familiar 4-2-3-1 setup, with Dier and one of Mousa Dembele or Harry Winks as the double pivot in the middle of the park.
Three points an absolute must on Wednesday night
The first port of call is the welcome of APOEL and it's a game Spurs need to win if only to boost morale. They dispatched of the Cyprian side with consummate ease earlier in the year and a similar victory would help. The 2-1 win in Dortmund was supposed to be a springboard for a return to winning ways in the Premier League, yet failed to have the desired effect.
Pochettino, then, will hope three points on Wednesday kickstarts a run of good form to improve their chances of a top-4 finish in the midst of the gruelling festive schedule.