Eric Dier is clearly an important player for both Tottenham Hotspur and for England. But his versatility is both his strength and his downfall.
The first question you ask is what is he – is he a centre-back or a defensive midfielder? That’s either a question that Mauricio Pochettino has struggled with, or it’s one he already has an answer to – he’s both.
For Spurs, that’s a satisfactory answer, but for England, it isn’t. Even if, at first glance, you might think it is.
In a World Cup year, attention always turns to the squad and who will book themselves a seat on the plane. Squads, they say, are like salads: too much lettuce or too much tomato will make a bad lunch, instead you need the right mix of different types of players to make a functioning tournament team.
That means versatile players are a must. James Milner, for example, was always welcome in the Manchester City squad until he decided he wasn’t a utility player but a central midfielder, and left for Liverpool where he swiftly converted to left-back. Eric Dier would be similarly welcome in the England set-up, though the problem that he could have – and the problem that Milner has had for much of the last few years – is that utility players are often kept in reserve.
That hasn’t happened too much to Dier at club level of late. But it’s when all are fit and healthy, Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele are probably Tottenham’s best two in behind three attacking midfielders and Harry Kane. It’s also similarly true that any back four would probably include Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld as a pairing when both are injury-free. That would leave Dier out, though various different formations and plenty of injuries, suspensions and squad rotations have meant the England man has played more minutes than anyone but Vertonghen this season.
That’s not to say that Dier is necessarily out of the team, but the problem with players who can play more than one position is that they’re often regarded as being spread too thin: good at both, not brilliant at one.
And that’s where the implications for England come into play.
It’s probably true that England are in a much better position in terms of squad depth than most give them credit for. With so many players playing in the Champions League for the likes of the Manchester clubs and Tottenham – specifically City and Spurs who play in a similar fashion – the squad should really look formidable.
We don’t have to name the players – we all know them – but some of the young English talent has lit up the Champions League this season, which is an encouraging sign in a World Cup year.
But the centre of midfield is the issue, and will be for the rest of the year. With Adam Lallana back to playing regularly for Liverpool, and alongside Alex Oxlade chamberlain, it’s not all doom and gloom in that position. But if you look at the Premier League’s top six, there are top English players all over the pitch for at least one of them, except for the midfield. Unless Eric Dier plays there.
When he does play in defensive midfield with Spurs he’s often played as part of a two. With England, you get the feeling he’ll have to play in a three if he’s deployed in midfield, shielding the back four from attacks whilst the other midfielders run ahead. Against Southampton at the weekend, he played alongside Mousa Dembele, the sort of player the Three Lions would love to have, but simply don’t.
This season, Dier has played 18 times in the midfield and 10 times in the centre of defence. That sort of versatility is highly valued in football for a multitude of obvious reasons, but the one thing it doesn’t do is help England this summer.
In order for Gareth Southgate’s team to perform at their best in Russia, what they really need is Dier to show his worth in front of the defence without the stabilisers that a player like Dembele provides. Otherwise that versatility will continue to pay dividends for Spurs, but won’t help his one jot.
England have talent all over the pitch except for the defensive midfield position – it’s Dier who’s the last piece of the jigsaw.