Why Tottenham’s Eric Dier might be crucial for England this summer
BY MIKE BUTLER
While the 2015/16 season rests for the FA Cup, there’s much to nostalgically look back upon after what’s been an outstandingly unpredictable 4 months in England. Jose Mourinho’s vociferous fallout and Chelsea’s unfathomable implosion will probably be a highlight for most, or Claudio Ranieri’s renaissance at a plucky Leicester another, but less attention has been given to the steady ascent of Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham.
Even within the internal spheres of Tottenham, little has been said of the smooth transition of holding midfielder-converted-right back Eric Dier, whose consistent performances have made many forget that he’s been largely played out of position for four months with great effect. Spurs have conceded just 16 goals after 20 games, with no team putting three past them in a match.
Dier, of course, cannot be accredited solely for such collective solidarity, but that shouldn’t detract from his versatile and underplayed attributes which have served him well in a screening role in front of his defence. These attributes are likely born from a unique upbringing: that of his migration to Portgual at the age of seven before breaking through Sporting Lisbon’s academy. An education is an education, you may say, but the foundations of a player’s internal tendencies are born from those fragile years. By learning everything in a Portugal, Dier has ascertained a more diverse mindset to his English contemporaries.
‘The surfaces that Dier played on during his younger years had a tremendous impact on the way he now plays the game,’ said a source from Sporting on Dier’s earlier years. ‘A lot of Sporting’s youth team matches were played on dirt pitches, the sort of surfaces where you would rip half your leg off if you were brave enough to attempt a slide tackle.’
Dier, clearly, learnt how to play in a less nurturing environment than he might of back in England, which is ironic given Portugal’s players’ pathetic reputation of being unable to receive contact in a game without taking a dramatic dive. Still, he hasn’t built up his reputation by honing his passing technique or roughing up nimble opposition no. 10s. Instead, he’s become an able-minded screener, moving laterally across the pitch to sure up Pochettino’s dynamic and aggressive pressing strategy. Look at the stats and he doesn’t make many interceptions or tackles, as instead, he anticipates, reads and consolidates his sides structure through intelligent positional play. It sounds basic, but intelligent and innate positioning is a wonderfully underrated trait to possess: it’s the one facet of football that Pep Guardiola said he spends more time coaching than any other, and it’s the underlying quality behind Sergio Busquets’ enforcing role at Barcelona.
It’s unfashionable and it won’t win a beauty contest, but Dier’s advent under Pochettino is transforming him into an accomplished no.6, at a time when there truly is a lack of world-class pedigree in the position.
Now that drought rings even more true with England, where people remain ignorant to the country’s (as ever) one shortfall: a solid holding midfielder. Further up the field things look promising, while the emergence of John Stones and Chris Smalling look set to provide a solid base: but apart from that, England have hardly excelled in producing in this position.
True, Jordan Henderson can provide a dynamic midfield presence, but you wouldn’t really fame him for his defensive attributes. Tom Cleverley has improved at Everton but has always surged forward from midfield. For a small time Jack Rodwell looked like he may be England’s answer, but his career has not seen him prosper into the talent he might have been at Everton.
In the end, who does that really leave to fill that hole? Jack Cork? Phil Jones? Jack Colback? Lee Cattermole? England manager Roy Hodgson has largely called upon Jack Wilshere to take up the role in qualification, but against truly skilful sides, a more rigid and less brittle holder will be necessary. Dier is by no means a finished article, but his early career projectory and his refreshingly different upbringing could have him on course to be a hugely influential player in English football.
England’s two standout players at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups were holders; Nicky Butt and Owen Hargreaves, the latter of whom had a German education at Bayern Munich. With his unique upbringing and continued impressive growth, don’t be surprised if Eric Dier continues this trend at Euro 2016.