With the exception of a 3-0 defeat to a determined and talented Liverpool side last weekend, Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham career has started as strongly as the end of his 18-month Southampton tenure.
It was kicked off with a Premier League victory over West Ham, a side Spurs lost to three times last term and found themselves a man down to after just half an hour, followed up by a 4-0 win over QPR.
Perhaps both results were to be expected, yet it was the manner of them that caught the eye. Setting up in a 4-2-3-1 formation and the emphasis moved towards a more technically-demanding style of football, Pochettino already appears to be meeting his primary requirement for the Tottenham job – transitioning the positive, progressive, high-pressing philosophy that earned him critical acclaim on the south coast to White Hart Lane.
Yet, if there’s been one disappointment of Tottenham’s season thus far, in my opinion, it’s been the form of Christian Eriksen.
The Danish international was exceptional last year, emerging as one of the rare few players Spurs threw £110million at in summer 2013 who actually justified his transfer fee – a more than reasonable £11million. He took a few months to adapt but by the end of the campaign had risen to essential status in the Tottenham starting Xi, finishing 2013/14 as the Lilywhites’ second-highest scorer and top creator, with seven goals and nine assists.
That overall contribution to 16 goals would be a strong return for any attacking midfielder – be he purchased for £5million or £50million – in their inaugural Premier League season, and thus, I expected great things from the former Ajax prodigy at the start of the current campaign.
It’s not that Eriksen’s performances this year have been sub-par. He’s still an incredibly influential player in Tottenham’s midfield, currently averaging 54 passes, 2.7 shots, 1.3 successful dribbles and two key passes per match. That latter statistic is actually the most proficient rate of any Spurs player this season.
Yet the output has been completely absent; despite being the Lilywhites’ resident set piece taker and the North London outfit averaging 1.7 goals per match this term, Eriksen is yet to find a goal or an assist. Hardly the be-all-and-end-all. This is just three games from a potential 38.
But directly influencing the score-line was unquestionably the 22 year-old’s prevailing characteristic throughout his four seasons in the Eredivisie, and a player of Eriksen’s great promise should always be standing out, rather than simply fitting in. There seems little cause for a slow start to the season either – the Danish international wasn’t involved in the World Cup and ended last term with a clean bill of health.
One has to consider whether Eriksen is a Pochettino player. Great players – of which I believe the midfielder will eventually become – can adapt and transition to any system, but the Danish international is confronted with some immediate disadvantages. The Dutch top flight is famed for its limited physicality, and it tends to be either the more athletic or technically exceptional players who shine through. Eriksen decisively belongs to the latter camp, slight in build and measuring in at just 5 foot 10, with his Spurs jersey seemingly a couple of sizes too large.
That contrasts greatly with Southampton’s philosophy under Pochettino. The Saints played some attractive football, but it was underpinned by a raucous work-rate and high-octane style, defending from the front and using the height, power and pace of Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez to punch holes through opposition defences.
Eriksen’s role at No.10 parallels Adam Lallana’s, a likewise playmaker who, on a superficial front, shares many of the Tottenham midfielder’s strengths. Yet, the differences between the two are far more meaningful; Eriksen is an elusive, stealthy, intelligent playmaker, his now-Liverpool counter-part is far more fluid, energetic and direct.
Systems should be developed with players in mind and not the other way around. With the exception of Jan Vertonghen, one of Europe’s top centre-backs, I would argue that Eriksen is Tottenham’s most naturally gifted player, and for him to become a victim of the Pochettino regime would unquestionably come back to bite the north Londoners in a few years time.
Yet, if Eriksen is to stand out under the Argentine as a player of his talents should, rather than maintaining himself as an important-but-expendable cog, then some adaption is needed. The 22 year-old has the potential to become Tottenham’s new talisman, paralleling the importance of Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, but for that to come into fruition this season, Eriksen must show the ability to tailor his game without compromising the qualities that brought him to the Premier League.