Spurs’ somewhat sluggish start and typical transfer nonsense has obfuscated something quite interesting about the start of their season, something that needs to be highlighted more: The versatility in the squad might be the reason Spurs break through this season, even though expectations have been lowered.
A staple of Mauricio Pochettino’s soccer philosophy not only has been the high press but the ability to use players in multiple positions. At Southampton, Jay Rodriguez became a “wing-forward” in his system, allowing him more freedom to make darting runs in between the center back and fullback, which lead conspicuously to more goals. This was one of many examples in Southampton’s front four where versatility allowed the team to show a number of different looks without deviating from the staple 4-2-3-1 formation.
With Spurs, the players may have changed, but the philosophy hasn’t. When many bemoaned the failure to sign Saido Berahino, the same people neglected to remember how Son Heung-Min is the same type of player as Berahino, but maybe even better. He can play outside, behind the striker or as a number nine, or the epitome of a “wing-forward.” Nacer Chadli has played in that role for Spurs since Pochettino’s arrival, and Clinton N’Jie should be able to do the same thing.
The rest of the Spurs squad echoes that versatility. Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, the aforementioned Chadli, Son and the like can all play on the wing or behind the striker. Players like Tom Carroll, Dele Alli, Mousa Dembele and Ryan Mason can all play in the attacking band or next to Eric Dier in a double pivot. And in the double pivot, playing Mason offers a completely different style than playing Nabil Bentaleb. Even Dier, who has established himself as a defensive midfielder, can adequately play at center back or right back, as he did last season.
Having so many players who can fill different roles not only offers Pochettino the chance to deviate from his standard 4-2-3-1 formation if he wishes, he can show teams different looks depending on who fills out the midfield five. Against Arsenal at White Hart Lane, Dembele, playing as a “forward destroyer,” helped completely break down Arsenal’s defense to the point where the visitors were under siege. In games when Spurs may want to hunker down, Dembele playing on the wing offers up a more defensive look, no matter who inhabits the double pivot beside Dier. But if Spurs want to press and attack consistently, playing Alli deeper or Mason may do the trick.