There were no surprises when Eric Dier was named in Gareth Southgate’s squad to face Germany and Lithuania this week. For England, he’s settled quickly into a midfield role and scored a significant goal against Russia in the Euros and the winner against Germany in Berlin this time last year.
You might have noticed, however, that he is listed on the FA’s website as a midfielder. The catch? He hasn’t played a Premier League game in that position since September. He’s the convenient victim of multiple changes at Tottenham, including in personnel and formation.
First, the signing of Victor Wanyama was always going to push Eric Dier. Maybe that was its point; to squeeze the maximum ability out of him, like what was done with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose who were similarly pushed along their way by Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies respectively. For all he had accomplished in the previous season in midfield, Pochettino still saw it appropriate to invest in the sturdy Kenyan who, since his arrival, has made the most Premier League appearances in the whole Tottenham squad. Then, once Mousa Dembele had returned from his ban for an eye-gouge on Diego Costa at the backend of last season, Dier was the dispensable one. With a consistent variety of injuries to Danny Rose, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld since the beginning of September, it has been Dier’s responsibility to play ‘stop-gap’ and fill the voids left. He’s a manager’s dream, for he is genuinely capable in both defence and in midfielder, but on evidence of last season and with some moments of error in this, you make a care for him excelling mostly in the latter.
The formation switch to 3-4-2-1 hasn’t helped his cause either. With Spurs so devoid of central defensive cover, Pochettino has opted sensibly to make use of the trusted Dier rather than Kevin Wimmer in his back three. When either of the Belgian contingent suffer through injury, that formation is thrown out of the window and it has been the ex-Sporting Lisbon player’s duty to cover. He’s a spectacularly resourceful and versatile option for Pochettino and Tottenham, but that’s a characteristic that might hinder his career. Not because he isn’t an outstanding footballer, but because he will always be the first choice to fill in. Just think, you would never rely on Toby Alderweireld to cover areas in which he is probably capable, mostly because he is just so reliant in one position. Spurs experimented with Vertonghen at left-back, but that is truly last resort now.
I’ve always viewed Dier as a player who thrives on positive feedback. Last year, each and every Spurs fan was quick to heap praise on him, whether that be because he had scored a goal or because he had put in what we now know as a ‘Wanyama’ performance. This season, he’s a bit-part used in every scene, but very rarely does the extra receive their just rewards. He’s been competent and at times brilliant, but equally he has been prone to fragile individual performances, most notably at Anfield where Sadio Mane capitalised on his error to score.
Pochettino and the player himself have been keen to point out that he is happy to play in whatever role he is allocated, but the slightest deceleration this season points to reasons to believe his versatility is becoming his own enemy. That’s the most pertinent concern. In theory, if Spurs were to invest in a first team centre back to accompany Alderweireld and Vertonghen, where does that leave Dier? A first substitute?
He’s by no means a liability, but if Tottenham are to keep strengthening as demonstrated by Wanyama, who by the way has proved a significant worthy buy, Dier’s place comes into question. With Harry Winks having cemented his place as a ready replacement for Mousa Dembele around 70 minutes in, Dier might have already tripped down the pecking order.
It’s all very unfortunate, but he’s still deemed enough for England and Southgate. He started at the Euros under Hodgson, which for the squad ended disastrously. The current man in charge still trusts him, but you fear once more that with the injury of Phil Jones, Dier is as much there on merit and talent as he is to fill any necessary gaps. We believe he’s there as a midfielder, but there’s as much chance that he will play in central defence.
Versatility is a coveted and sought-after trait and the club have recently drawn comparisons to Gary Mabbutt, a club legend who likewise boasted the ability to play in central defensive, on the right hand side of the defence or in central midfield. ‘I would have played in goal!’ Mabbutt said on Tottenham’s official website and yes, perhaps Dier is a similar character. In truth, an unfortunate series of injuries are the reason for an unstable season and with that, his form deteoriates. At times, he has looked rushed, uncomfortable and made hasty decisions in Tottenham’s defence.
That said, he is undoubtedly talented and simply, it would be a shame if over the course of his career, he would not be permitted the opportunities to refine his skills in one position. In some ways, he’s too good to play the handyman.