Mauricio Pochettino has hailed Eric Dier’s versatility, explaining how he had built a system that allowed the England international to play at both defence and midfield in the same match.
Dier has generally been playing at centre-back this season, after mainly playing in defensive midfield last year. In Dier’s first season at Spurs he played centre-back and right-back, making him one of the most versatile players in Pochettino’s squad.
Where Dier is best used is a constant debate but at his press conference on Thursday, Pochettino explained how he had “created a system that [Dier] felt comfortable in”, in which Dier played as a centre-back with the ball and a midfielder without it. That was a system that switched between 4-2-3-1 and something closer to 3-3-3-1, and Pochettino pointed out that Antonio Conte was not the first manager to play that way in the Premier League in recent years.
Dier is crucial to Spurs’ changing systems and Pochettino spoke warmly about his versatility yesterday, while not missing the opportunity to say how it was his own managerial imagination that made him an imposing midfielder.
“It’s a good thing Dier can play in different positions, as a midfielder, as a centre-back, as a full-back,” Pochettino said. “We signed him [from Sporting CP] as a player with potential. We provided all the tools to be a Premier League player playing well.
“My first game in charge at West Ham [in August 2014] he started as a centre back, next to Younes Kaboul. Then Kyle Naughton got the red card and he played as a full-back and scored. That season, he played as a full back, as a centre back but never as a midfielder.”
Pochettino wanted new midfielders in the summer of 2015 but eventually decided his best option was the man who’d been playing in defence for him. “In the summer , we were looking for a midfielder and we had plenty of options but I decided to play him in midfield,” Pochettino explained. “I created a system that he felt comfortable in.”
The result was this hybrid, 4-2-3-1 without the ball, something close to 3-3-3-1 with it, with Dier switching between defence and midfield depending on who had possession. “[Dier] played as a midfielder without the ball, with the ball he was a third centre back,” Pochettino explained. “You can see in possession he dropped in between the centre-backs, or between the full back and the centre back. Always we play with three [centre-backs].
“People say now Chelsea changed the system. No, we played always the three in possession.” That third centre-back role is the one Dier is playing every week now in the 3-4-2-1.
When Spurs did not have the ball last year, Dier pushed up alongside Mousa Dembele to press the opposition. “Out of possession, Eric moved in front,” Pochettino explained. “Without the ball he tried to press and play as a midfielder. Then [in 2016] we signed Victor Wanyama and played both.”
This season, injuries to Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, as well as the use of 3-4-2-1, means that Dier has spent almost all season in the back three, even though he is thought to prefer playing in midfield. “We had some injuries like Toby and Jan, and Eric was the perfect player to play as a centre back,” Pochettino explained. “Victor, you can see his performance so far.”
Wanyama and Dembele are doing such a good job in central midfield that there is little prospect of a Dier return there any time soon. But Pochettino has no doubt that if a space opens up there, or if he feels he needs to re-balance the team, Dier will be the man to do it.
“That is a good thing for the player,” Pochettino said. “The possibility to play in different positions and doing well in every one.”