Eyebrows raised, three points on the board, and no questions asked. Many Spurs fans were excited, some even ecstatic – a Christian Eriksen position change to a deep-lying playmaker, instead of a makeshift left-winger. It’s been a change that’s paid dividends for Spurs in recent weeks – and really, it should surprise nobody.
When Pochettino deploys the 4-1-4-1 against weaker sides, Eriksen’s importance increases beyond that of his role in the 4-2-3-1. Last season, much of the playmaker’s pressing work was pass-lane orientated, meaning he won less tackles and looked somewhat less involved than teammate Erik Lamela, who has been applauded for his tireless work ethic and physicality. Eriksen is, instead, a smarter player, and one with a fantastic ability to read the game in order to provide a key pass. The Dane won’t be racing past full-backs anytime soon, but is able to pick the lock of stubborn defences and provide vital goals.
Hence his position change. In the 4-1-4-1, Eriksen plays as the deeper of the central midfielders in the 4, at times dropping back to partner the specialist defensive midfielder. What this allows him to do is to pick the ball up in the heart of the midfield, with space in front of him to run into, as well as a clear view of the pitch, allowing him to get his head up and pick an effective pass. From a central position, he will be able to dictate games in a similar way to former Spur Luka Modric, instead of drifting wide and not getting on the ball enough.
This is an especially challenging problem for opposition teams to deal with, as the obvious solution – man-marking the Dane – would cause more problems than it solves. By assigning a specialist player to stay with Eriksen the whole game, the opposition’s discipline and shape is broken, and the 24-year-old is good enough to exploit this to his team’s advantage; Spurs have plenty of other attacking talents, each of whom possesses the quality to punish teams for such laziness. If a defensive-minded player is not chosen, then the opposition forfeit an attacker when Eriksen picks the ball up in the midfield, and if the decision is made not to man-mark, then the creative midfielder will be allowed to dictate the game as he’ll have time on the ball.
All this, and yet very little is sacrificed. One way that the 4-1-4-1 has worked so effectively for Spurs has been the immense performances of Victor Wanyama in the absence of Mousa Dembele, but Eriksen dropping back to play alongside Wanyama does wonders for the defensive stability of the side – who are yet to concede from open play in the league, after 7 – yes, seven – games. Spurs have been, yet again, water-tight defensively, and this has no doubt been aided by Eriksen’s work ethic.
Of course, going forward, he isn’t the complete article yet. For an attacking midfielder, Eriksen still doesn’t score enough goals yet – especially when compared to the brilliant Kevin De Bruyne – but then Spurs are now in a position where one star man’s absence won’t hinder the whole team. This alone shows the development Spurs have made in recent years under Pochettino; Eriksen’s performances under Tim Sherwood made him essentially undroppable as he was far and away the best player in the side; taking Eriksen out had a hugely detrimental effect on the side. Now, Spurs look anything but bereft of attacking ideas, even without Eriksen. Dele Alli and Heung Min-Son have both made huge impacts this season, while Erik Lamela and Georges Kevin-N’Koudou look like they’re in for big seasons. Eriksen dropping into midfield will provide a space up for grabs in the attacking third, but will also provide Spurs with the spark they lacked at times last season from midfield.
As of yet, the North-London outfit have been massively impressive, and Eriksen has played a huge role in that.