The next time Mauricio Pochettino leaves Tottenham’s training ground, he would do well to ignore the black cat emerging from under a ladder before clumsily knocking over a salt cellar into a mirror, smashing it into smithereens. The domestic season is only two months old and Tottenham’s goalkeeper has suffered an injury and been convicted of a crime, four first-team defenders have spent time out with an array of knocks, August brought a midfield injury crisis, there are still lingering suspicions that their star striker is suffering from fatigue and his back-up travelled to the other side of the world to try and avoid military service.
Even Tottenham’s victories come tinged with bad news. The win at Brighton on September 22 allayed fears of a mini-crisis after three straight defeats in the Premier League and Champions League, but Christian Eriksen sustained an abdominal injury. He has not been seen in Spurs’ four games since.
There have been conflicting reports about the severity of Eriksen’s problem. Denmark manager Age Hareide threw a fanbase into panic when telling Canal 9 that the abdominal injury was “chronic”, suggesting that it might require surgery and thus extended absence. Eriksen’s agent Martin Schoots rejected that rumour: “Christian has no chronic injuries – nobody has said that. He just has an injury related to some fatigue and, for that reason, he is having some rest.”
‘Injury related to fatigue’ might just be the epitaph of Tottenham’s 2018/19 season, should supporters’ worst fears about the squad come to pass. For all the claims of misfortune, these are problems of the club’s own making.
No team in Europe had more representatives in the World Cup semi-finals than Tottenham’s nine. Five of those nine were among the club’s six most regular appearance-makers last season. If their Premier League and Champions League peers were able to break key players in gently after their summer exertions, Tottenham’s transfer market hesitance – and eventual stasis – did not allow them such wiggle room. The only answer was to play on.
Eriksen did not reach the World Cup semi-finals, but he has hardly been skiving. Since August 2014 – a period of 50 months – Eriksen has started 255 matches for club and country. That’s an average of five per month, every month, without break. It would be more surprising if he wasn’t half-broken. Expecting a star player to remain at peak during that period is to ask for the moon on a stick.
For all the valid doubts over Tottenham’s lack of strength in depth, Pochettino has largely been able to cover for this injury crisis. Lucas Moura has been revitalised following a full preseason and has covered for both Harry Kane and Son’s absences. Tottenham have four wing-backs and four central defenders, and even the central midfield crisis only reached its nadir with a combination of Moussa Sissoko and Eric Dier.
For all Kane’s talismanic brilliance, Tottenham’s only truly irreplaceable player is Eriksen. Last season, he created over 20% of all their chances in the league. He is their free-kick taker and corner taker. Despite being an attacking midfielder, only one Tottenham player (Jan Vertonghen) made more passes. Eriksen played 1,036 passes in the final third, more than 350 above his nearest rival.
But this is about more than attacking invention. Across north London, Arsenal agreed to pay Mesut Ozil £300,000 a week but Unai Emery must now persuade him to match sexiness with steel. A high press is not a tactic for individuals, but the collective. It is only as good as its weakest member.
At Tottenham, Eriksen has become the master of all trades and the standard-bearer of Pochettino’s style. He arrived from Ajax with a reputation for fluidity and style, drawing flattering comparisons to Michael Laudrup, but with significant questions about his perceived lack of physical strength and stamina. The suspicion was that Tottenham might have signed a luxury No. 10. Pochettino didn’t really do luxury.
Pochettino has created a relentless, driving footballer whose hard work and energy only flies under the radar because of his exceptional creativity. But the credit must go to the player who has adapted and flourished as well as the manager who provoked it. Since the start of 2015/16, only Ozil has created more chances in the Premier League than Eriksen. But last season, Eriksen outnumbered Ozil for tackles by almost three to one. It is no surprise that rumours of a bumper new contract have surfaced. Even signing it would only bring Eriksen up to two-thirds of Ozil’s salary.
But Eriksen’s majesty comes with a negative spin: his absence leaves a gaping hole. Without their great Dane, Tottenham become a version of England. With no pure creator, Kane is forced to drop deeper to avoid becoming isolated but then is inevitably blunted by operating further from goal. For Tottenham, Eriksen’s absence leads to Moura spending more time in the middle to try and fill the void. That too stymies Kane.
The other knock-on effect happens in central midfield. Without Eriksen to link play between the holding midfielders and attackers, one of those midfielders has to push up to avoid a large gap forming. That can make Tottenham prone to the counter. Any Tottenham supporter witnessing the 4-2 defeat to Barcelona would agree.
Pochettino will be relieved to hear that Eriksen’s injury is not serious; he could be back in action this month. But with fatigue setting in and Real Madrid and Barcelona reportedly keeping an eye on contract negotiations, Tottenham’s manager will be keen to stress to his superiors the importance of keeping Eriksen sweet. If this Spurs rise has been built on the power of the team over the individual, every orchestra needs its conductor.