One small problem with having a player as good as Christian Eriksen is what happens when you suddenly don’t have him. When a whole team takes its cues from the intelligence of one man, removing that man from the picture leaves the rest of the side devoid of direction and guidance, like an orchestra robbed of its conductor.
That was the story with Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday afternoon. In difficult conditions they produced their most barren creative performance in months, stumbling to a 1-1 draw at Southampton in which their solitary goal came from a corner kick. All of those clever final-third interchanges, like the moves that destroyed Everton at Wembley last Saturday, were missing. Because Eriksen was at home trying to recover from flu picked up last week.
Mauricio Pochettino was quite downbeat afterwards discussing his team’s struggles, and unusually pointed in his criticism of what had gone wrong on the pitch. He said that Spurs had “made a lot of mistakes in possession”, that they kept gifting Southampton the ball back and that they “needed to move the ball quicker and create more”. All of which is going to happen when you take Eriksen out of the team and replace him with Moussa Sissoko.
Premier League gameweek 24 in pictures
Sissoko has his uses but him replacing Eriksen in this team was the polar opposite of a straight swap. And with no Eriksen, Spurs usually resorted to firing hopeful crosses into the box, or passing aimlessly in front of the Southampton back four, rather than picking their way through. Harry Kane and Dele Alli never look as dangerous when they do not have Eriksen sliding clever passes through to them. Both players looked vaguely lost on Sunday, making their usual runs, following the Tottenham playbook, but with no-one to pass the ball to them.
Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele gave Spurs a solid platform in midfield but it was not enough to turn possession into chances, with no Eriksen in the team. Dier knows exactly how much his team miss Eriksen when he’s not there. “We did not create enough,” Dier admitted afterwards. “Christian is a fantastic player, there are not many players like him. He’s one of the links between the phases of play, and is key in that regard. He can create chances and score goals.”
But when Spurs’ Plan A has lost one of its key parts, they need a usable Plan B and the frustrating evidence of Sunday was that they do not always have another option. Fernando Llorente was signed to give Spurs a strong back-up for Harry Kane and yet more than half-way through the season, he has only scored two goals. They were against APOEL Nicosia and Swansea City. By this stage last year, Vincent Janssen had three. Pochettino has many strengths as a manger but making assertive game-changing substitutions is not one of them.
So Spurs are left in the same place as usual: with a very effective, attractive way of playing, but one that struggles with a key part removed. And without a robust Plan B, that can leave them lacking on days like Sunday.
But is there any other way? Even Manchester City, who are running away with the title, are not the same side without David Silva. They have missed him in recent weeks when he has not been available: in the 0-0 draw at Selhurst Park City missed someone to play those clever final-third passes, in the 4-3 defeat at Liverpool they missed someone to calmly put his foot on the ball. When Silva, who has just turned 32, finally retires, City will not be the same force. No matter how much money they throw at a replacement.
Eriksen is not a great on the level of Silva, he has not won anything near enough in the game yet. But for the last year or so he has been performing closer to Silva’s level than anyone else in the Premier League. That is why he is so valuable to Spurs, and so important, and also why he has attracted the attention of Barcelona.
If Tottenham are to continue to progress in the next few years then as well as Kane, Alli and Toby Alderweireld, they need to keep Eriksen at the club too. Because being completely dependent on Eriksen has its downsides, but not having Eriksen is far worse.