The evolution of Eric Dier: Deputy right-back to first-choice central midfielder
Current boss Mauricio Pochettino is keen to continue the acquisition of young talent without the expensive outlay of his predecessors
When Harry Redknapp was in charge of Tottenham, the club always appeared to be oversubscribed with central midfielders; Luka Modric, Jermaine Jenas, Wilson Palacios, Tom Huddlestone, Jamie O'Hara and Didier Zokora all played in Redknapp's first season alone.
One of the reasons for this was Spurs' policy of recruiting young players in the position, with a number of academy products also emerging to add further strength in depth.
Jenas, Huddlestone, John Bostock and Kevin Prince‐Boateng were all signed aged 22 or below, with O'Hara, Jake Livermore, Tom Carroll and Ryan Mason all emerging from the youth setup within a four-year period.
On top of this, Redknapp was still adding players who were ready to go straight into the first team.
The former West Ham and Portsmouth manager’s successor, Andre Villas-Boas, then spent £31.5 million on four players in 2012 who had all previously operated as No.10s. It was natural that many of them would either not feature or be forced to change their game in order to get regular playing time.
Three years on, the balance within the squad is slowly being redressed, with the likes of Huddlestone, Livermore, Paulinho, Sandro, Etienne Capoue, Scott Parker and Benjamin Stambouli all leaving White Hart Lane in the last two years. Current boss Mauricio Pochettino is keen to continue the acquisition of young talent without the expensive outlay of his predecessors.
Eric Dier's arrival last summer was intended to bolster the backline rather than add to the midfield competition. "Dier is a versatile and young player and we feel he has a lot of potential. We have followed him for some time and we think he can develop into a top defender," said Pochettino when he signed.
The 2‐1 derby win over Arsenal at the start of February proved to be a turning point for Dier, as he established himself as Jan Vertonghen's centre-back partner
That versatility was evident straight away, as Dier began his Spurs career in a familiar centre-back slot in his first start against West Ham before moving to right-back after only half an hour due to the sending off of Kyle Naughton.
Dier made a fantastic start to life in North London, netting a stoppage-time winner at Upton Park and also getting his name on the scoresheet again in the following game against QPR. With first-choice right-back Kyle Walker injured until December, Pochettino rotated Dier, Naughton and Vlad Chiriches in subsequent matches until Walker was fit enough to return.
The 2‐1 derby win over Arsenal at the start of February proved to be a turning point for Dier, as he established himself as Jan Vertonghen's centre-back partner for the final 15 league matches.
Both Younes Kaboul and Federico Fazio were forced to watch from the sidelines as Dier continued to improve, with the former leaving for Sunderland in the summer.
Move to midfield
With Toby Alderweireld arriving, it was thought that Dier would again be used sporadically. Instead, the utility man has been trusted with another guise – as a deep-lying midfielder.
It's not an altogether new role for Dier, who was occasionally used as a holding midfielder at Sporting Lisbon, where he spent 11 years after his parents moved to Portugal when he was 10. Aged 17, Dier spent 18 months on loan at Everton, a spell that he believes helped his formation as a player.
Coaches like Alan Stubbs were quite hard on me but that helped a lot. It was the best thing that could have happened. It really hardened me up physically and mentally
"It was quite tough going to an unfamiliar place where I didn't know anyone at first," Dier admitted. "Coaches like Alan Stubbs were quite hard on me but that helped a lot. It was the best thing that could have happened. It really hardened me up physically and mentally. The football was much faster, physical and more direct than in Portugal."
It seems that the combination of continental-style coaching in Lisbon and old-fashioned British physicality honed on Merseyside prepared Dier for the rigours of the Premier League. His passing range, aerial strength and ball-carrying abilities means he isn't simply a typical defender-turned-destroyer either.
"When you play in different positions you add to your game and so gain better tools to be a better player," says Pochettino. "He has all the characteristics to establish himself as a permanent protector of the back four, although it's highly probable that he will revert to the centre of defence in the future."
Guardian of the defence
Last term, Mason and Nabil Bentelab were deployed as Spurs’ double-pivot, but Dier's positional discipline is superior to that of his two peers. Dier’s importance to the team is illustrated by the fact that he's started every game in all competitions for Tottenham this season in the centre of the park.
It's also worth noting that Spurs have kept three clean sheets in as many league matches as Dier has grown into his new role; their defence has been breached just seven times in eight games – with two goals coming from Mathieu Flamini – due to the protection afforded by Dier. No player in Tottenham’s squad averages more tackles per game in the Premier League than the England Under-21 international, with Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele the only squad members with a higher pass-completion rate.
Despite still trying to find his way in the position and being fielded alongside four different midfield partners, Dier has remained consistent
Despite still trying to find his way in the position and being fielded alongside four different midfield partners, Dier has remained consistent so far this campaign, even when he has been asked to perform different duties. Against Stoke, for example, he was tasked with recycling possession and taking a more creative approach, while against Everton he looked to make passes in behind the opponents’ attacking full-backs and push higher up the pitch to close down Ross Barkley.
In his man-of-the-match display against Sunderland he completed eight out of nine tackles attempted and make four blocks. Then, against Crystal Palace, he completed six tackles, with four coming on the right-hand side of the pitch as he helped Walker deal with the threat of Bakary Sako.
Dier’s good form was rewarded with a new contract earlier in September, just 12 months into his initial five-year deal. Few can argue with a pay increase for the 21-year-old, with Dier's flexibility already making him one of the most valuable players in the Tottenham ranks.