At their very best, Tottenham’s full-backs were such a sight. When Kyle Walker and Danny Rose were at the peak of their form, the impetus they provided from deep was often startling. Athletically, they were magnificent and, as footballers and each respective case, their technical growth under Mauricio Pochettino was actually remarkable.
Two years on, both are gone. Walker literally, following his transfer to Manchester City. Rose in a figurative sense, blighted by injury and creeping towards 30. Serge Aurier has arrived from Paris Saint-Germain and Ben Davies remains at the club, but neither – either individually or together – have come close to replicating the power of that original tandem. Kieran Trippier has tried. His crossing has been highly valuable over the past two seasons and his good form was rightly recognised by England over the summer, but he has certainly lost his way in the months since.
It leaves Tottenham with a problem which needs fixing. They have others, of course, and a fresh one created by the news that Mousa Dembele will be out of action until 2019, but the inability to gain any impetus from full-back is one of the root causes of their listlessness. The dynamism of two seasons ago has been replaced by a more pedestrian rhythm and Spurs find themselves playing far too much in central areas and too often in front of a defence. They lack penetration and it’s easy to diagnose that as a consequence of their lack of width.
Even within that specific context there are more obvious issues. The form of Davies and Trippier has, with a few encouraging moments excepted, been a disaster. Both have become deeply error-prone and each has been responsible cheap goals this season; Davies, in particular, has seen his good form of last season drop through the floor and is currently playing at his lowest level since joining the club. Worryingly, Trippier seems to be becoming more error-prone with each passing week.
But maybe the bigger problem is one of profile. Are the players Pochettino has in that position athletically good enough to perform their required role? After all, neither Rose nor Walker was ever completely defensively secure, but the thrust they provided kept them both well in credit. They were each adept at receiving possession from their centre-backs or goalkeeper, both were highly-aggressive, and when they entered the opposition’s final-third, they didn’t dally, slow down or cut back in field, preferring instead to head straight for the goalline to stretch the defence.
As time has progressed, the clearer it has become that, while there are notionally more important players in Pochettino’s squad, the declining quality of his full-backs has become a major hindrance. Without their quick bursts of power, Tottenham often find themselves stuck in a single gear; how often did a Rose or Walker surge lift White Hart Lane, for instance, and how many times did their movement create exploitable space further in-field? How regularly did their physical ability to keep up with a counter-attack create a further, critical problem for another team? As technically good as many of the players in those teams were, Spurs often just overwhelmed opponents with their hard-running – something which, clearly, they aren’t doing at the moment.
It stresses the problem: this team cannot function as it should with ordinary, or plainly ‘good’ players in those positions and for as long as it’s forced to, they will remain a diluted version of themselves.
As such, it’s an area which desperately needs investment. Spurs are financially stretched and there seems only a remote chance of any activity in January, but when funds are available, whenever that may be, they must be used to overhaul this department and return the energy to this side.