First-choice centre-back for Tottenham Hotspur. One of the first considerations again for England, it now seems. Yet Eric Dier remains a polarising figure with the fans of both, so why does he seem an immediate pick for Jose Mourinho? Football.london explains.
It’s not hard to see why fans don’t immediately single out the former Sporting Lisbon youngster as a dominant, must-have leader at the back: compared with the current stand-outs of defensive brilliance, he’s a very different figure. He is a former defensive midfielder who was deemed by many to be not quite good enough, progressive enough, to play that role; he’s not a constant, loud shouter, an imposing physical presence compared to a Van Dijk, not as classy-looking and elegant in possession as someone like Aymeric Laporte.
He didn’t cost tens of millions, doesn’t score crucial goals and his name is too easy to throw into puns of poor performances.
How are fans supposed to rate someone like that? What is there even to rate? Clearly not his tackling ability, if we start with the statistics.
In fact, the obvious defensive metrics make for puzzling reading. A quick look on WhoScored will show fans Dier has, in fact, won zero tackles in the Premier League this season. But before the alarm bells start sounding, some context: it’s fairly clear that teams haven’t (so far, in the very small sample size of 2020/21) specifically targeted Dier to run at. He has been dribbled past just 0.5 times per 90 minutes on average, compared to team-mates Toby Alderweireld (1.0), Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (2.3) and Sergio Reguilon (5.0).
That’s just one game for the Spanish left-back, by the way, which shows how distorting the early-season stats can be.
But it’s simply not the big part of his game; last season Dier made 1.4 tackles per 90, and was dribbled past 0.7 times a match. He doesn’t get beaten too easily, but his defensive strengths lie elsewhere.
Interceptions stand at 1.0 per 90 for this term, in line with his 1.2 average from 19/20, but Dier’s prowess and impact on the back-line becomes more visible when it comes to that most basic of requirements: actually clearing his lines. Dier, by a distance, is Spurs’ top man for competing on aerial balls and making clearances. His effectiveness in simplicity, in repetition, in reliability, is perhaps a big part of why managers appreciate him.
Consider the ways most teams try and attack against Spurs: maybe four or five clubs can be classed as ‘better’ than Spurs, give or take, but even some of those will attempt to cross and use set-pieces. Add in the rest who might only have a few attacking opportunities each half and their approach can be even more direct and repetitive, seeking out the key forward with linear passes or deliveries from wide, all of which Dier can attack with the sole aim of repelling the threat.
He averages six aerials contested a game so far this season, the most in the Spurs squad after new arrival Matt Doherty – though Dier only ranks fourth on headers won, which shows scope for improvement given a 47 per cent success rate. Again, though, small sample size. Last season he was seventh among all centre-backs and holding midfielders in the league (minimum six appearances) for headers contested, with 7.4 per 90 – and his win rate was over 60 per cent, a far more palatable ratio to benefit his team.
With clearances, too, Dier is easily highest in the Spurs squad for this season with 5.3 a game, even more than he averaged last term.
Defensive solidity isn’t just about being incredible at every part of the defensive game. It’s about forming a partnership where two players complement each other with their skill sets, where one’s deficiencies are another’s strengths, where the overall composition of the back line accounts for an ability to cope with any and all types of attacking threats.
Right now, Dier is partnered with Davinson Sanchez, with Toby Alderweireld on the sidelines. Perhaps Mourinho’s thinking is that the Colombian offers a little more pace and recovery running, or maybe he has an eye on the future. But also perhaps he likes Sanchez’s ability to be on the front foot and attack the attack, as it were, looking to step in and make challenges, with Dier the covering option, the aerial aggressor, the sweeper-up of any resulting mess.
The other half of the equation is Dier’s on-the-ball ability; while he might never have been an Andrea Pirlo in midfield, he’s not rubbish either. Dier has the second-lowest number of possession losses in the team, after Ben Davies, with Alderweireld and Sanchez both double his tally on a per-90 basis.
Dier also averages the most accurate long passes in the entire team, the fewest inaccurate short passes of those who have played more than once and the best overall pass success rate among all Spurs’ defenders.
Factor in unknown, unmeasurable qualities, too. We don’t get to see what happens in the dressing room and the training pitch (selective documentary episodes aside). Dier may be the one who takes responsibility, might be a coaching extension of Mourinho’s plans on the pitch, could be a player who has least fatigue and concentration failure in tests during the late parts of games.
Above all else, he clearly has the trust of managers and these guys have been around for some time. Mourinho has coached some of the best and Gareth Southgate was one of the best in his own time.
Dier isn’t going to win prizes based on silky dribbling out the back, irrepressible dominance in the challenge and a penalty he took two years ago. But he has won, and will likely keep, a place in the team because he does the fundamentals well, serves the right purpose for the team and fits the style of the team.
The Spurs man might not be world class, but he certainly isn’t dire.