When Eric Dier completed his move to Tottenham in 2014, he spoke of his desire to “adapt really quickly” to the Premier League. “It has always been my ambition and my dream to come back to England and play,” he added, a wide-eyed young boy taking on a new challenge head first.
For a player who left England with his family at the age of seven to move to Portugal, change is something Dier has grown accustomed to. To paraphrase a line from a popular Hollywood blockbuster: other players “adopted adaptability; he was born in it, moulded by it”. The need to adjust and alter one’s style is the bane of many, but not Dier. His personal experiences helped create the professional.
He would not have to wait long to prove his capabilities to “adapt”; Mauricio Pochettino provided him with that chance on his debut. Dier was an unexpected starter for Tottenham against West Ham in August 2014, sitting alongside captain Younes Kaboul in the heart of the defence. After cruising through a routine opening half hour of his first test, the 20-year-old was asked to complete a difficult manoeuvre. Kyle Naughton was dismissed, and Dier was switched to right-back.
Many would have floundered. This was his first game since signing for a new club. He had never played in the Premier League before. He would now be in a less favoured position and in direct competition against the mighty Ricardo Vaz Te on the wing. Dier not only passed the test, but he scored the game’s deciding goal. It took him 90 short minutes in east London to prove just how quickly he could “adapt” to Tottenham and the Premier League.
In the short time since, Dier has established himself as the most curious first-teamer going. Dier is Pochettino’s third choice at both centre-half and in central midfield, starting fewer games than Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembele in those respective positions last season, but playing more minutes than anyone. He is one of his manager’s most prized possessions.
“I think we created altogether a new-style player,” Pochettino remarked in May. After easing to victory over Arsenal earlier that month, he had praised Dier’s “flexibility” throughout. “Sometimes we had three at the back, four at the back, two at the back with three midfielders, we used the full-backs higher or close inside like a midfielder,” he said, pointing out that each change could be made mid-game.
Most peculiar is that, despite his undoubted importance to the side, Dier is not even close to Tottenham’s best player. Hugo Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Danny Rose, Wanyama, Dembele, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane can all lay greater claim to that moniker. Yet Pochettino has created a system that relies not on Alli, Eriksen or Kane, but on Dier. Pochettino’s Swiss Army knife is one of the most important weapons in his armoury.
Since Pochettino’s appointment, only Lloris (11,826 minutes) and Eriksen (11,814) have featured more often than Dier (11,381), a player with no fixed position, but one manager with a great deal of faith and trust. Dier does not exceed in passing or tackling statistics, nor is he a goalscorer or creator. His value is in his ability to adjust to the environment. Tottenham’s chameleon is a defender when his side have the ball, but a midfielder when they are without it.
The concern is that removing Dier from said environment in turn diminishes his effectiveness. That much is obvious when watching the midfielder feature for England, yet it is also a word of caution to Manchester United.
Would Jose Mourinho ever “create a system that Dier feels comfortable in” as Pochettino said he had in March, despite both managers boasting better players? Would the Portuguese grant so much tactical authority to any one player, never mind one so comparatively young? Dier would be lost in the shuffle at Old Trafford, but he is White Hart Lane’s joker in the pack.
Certain players suit certain clubs. Take Kane and Alli out of Tottenham and place them in any other leading team throughout Europe and they would surely prosper. Remove Dier from the Spurs structure, and there is an overbearing feeling that he would be exposed. He is supremely effective under Pochettino as a £4m signing; it is difficult imaging him succeeding under Mourinho as a £50m signing.
Flexible. Versatile. Adjustable. Dier has been dubbed many things at Tottenham as he has carved out a particular niche as the utility man at a club with specialist players. Take him out of those familiar surroundings, and a Lilywhite chameleon might struggle to turn red.