When Tottenham beat Chelsea at White Hart Lane back in January – probably their best result of last season – the powerful midfield partnership of Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama was a key factor.
While Christian Eriksen’s pinpoint crosses and Dele Alli’s clinical headers produced the decisive goals, Spurs’ creative players owed much to the pair behind them, who secured possession and got the hosts playing on the front foot in the first place.
When the Lilywhites were preparing for this season, the idea of being without both players at the same time would have been worrisome – yet that is precisely what has happened.
Wanyama has been out of action since August, while Dembele has missed the last five games, and it remains unclear when either man will be available again. Pochettino admits he is “concerned” about Wanyama’s knee injury – he will see a specialist next week – and Dembele suffered a hip problem in training on Monday, after previously having problems with his foot and ankle.
Nevertheless, Tottenham have been coping well without them. Out of the seven games that neither player has started, the Lilywhites have won five and drawn the other two, including Tuesday’s 1-1 tie against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Pochettino has had to be creative but has generally had success with a 5-4-1 system featuring wing-backs and a flexible midfield diamond.
Eric Dier has been able to get a run of games as the holding midfielder and Harry Winks has become a key figure, while Moussa Sissoko has benefited from a move inside into what he feels is his best role, offering physicality as well as pace on the break.
Meanwhile, Christian Eriksen has retained his relative freedom, while Dele Alli’s role at the tip of the diamond allows him to become a second striker when Spurs have the ball in advanced areas. Heung-Min Son can also adopt that role.
Pochettino employed a slight variation of that system in Madrid on Tuesday. Unable to start with either of his usual left-backs but determined to play with wing-backs – a decision which was justified when Serge Aurier set up the opening goal – he used Jan Vertonghen on the left flank, necessitating Dier’s move into the back three and consequently the use of a three-man midfield of Eriksen, Winks and Sissoko behind Fernando Llorente and Harry Kane.
Again Spurs got the job done, offering further evidence that they are better able to cope with injuries than at this stage last year, when they won just one match out of 10 between October 15 and November 26.
Pochettino is pleased with that sign of progress. However, the games against Liverpool, West Ham, Manchester United and Real in the next fortnight will continue to test his new-look midfield – and his worry is how long the same midfielders can keep going.
Indeed, while there has been no decision yet, the Argentinian admits Spurs may consider strengthening the position in the January transfer window, if concerns remain about Dembele and Wanyama. Everton’s Ross Barkley is known to be of interest, of course, and is out of contract in the summer.
“Last season it was difficult to cope with our competitions – the Champions League and the Premier League,” said Pochettino. “Remember there was a massive polemic about quality, the bench and the strength of the squad.
“Today we have available the same number of players and a similar number injured, but because the team has moved on, improved and learned we’re competing much better. We’re more mature as a team and we’re happy about that. That is a massive difference.
“I am very pleased to have different alternatives to play. It’s true that maybe we’ve changed from last season. We’re playing and mixing different systems to try to play with the characteristics of our players.
“Sissoko, Eriksen, Dier or Winks are helping a lot and playing in positions where they need to work – not just play football but work hard and run a lot. I think it’s fantastic to hide that lack of players who can play in that position, and it’s so important.
“We’re happy but it’s true that maybe if we see long-term, maybe we need more players with the capacity to play there.”
Pochettino continued: “It’s important with Victor and Mousa to recover them because we have ahead a lot of games and we need to manage the players properly now. Sometimes we need to rest some players because they were involved with their national teams and they will be again, and they’re not machines.
“More numbers and options to rotate and to keep our level is so important for us, and to miss two players in that position like Dembele and Victor, it’s tough to replace them.
“We’re forced to push the players too much sometimes and that it why maybe we need to keep our eyes on them and try sometimes to give them some rest.
“At the moment there’s no decision about if we are going to move in January. We’re talking with Daniel [Levy, the chairman] and Steve [Hitchin, the chief scout] and are focused on every single position on the pitch, trying to be vigilant and aware of some things we need to do.
“But at the moment there’s no decision. We’re happy and expect Victor and Mousa to recover. We’ll see when the moment arrives if we need to strengthen the squad or not.”
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