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Wanyama to Tottenham: A safe bet by Pochettino or a tactical gamble for Spurs?

wanyama vs spurs

With Victor Wanyama’s £11 million move to Tottenham Hotspur seemingly imminent, FCaptial takes a look at the potential benefits of Spurs’ first summer signing.

Since making his debut for the Nigerian national team at 15, Victor Wanyama has become known for his physical, aggressive and energetic style of play. In time, this caught the attention of Celtic’s then manager Neil Lennon, who stole the midfielder from Beerschot FC for a mere £900,000. Quickly becoming a regular in the Celtic side (making 61 out of a possible 72 league appearances in his 2 year stay), Wanyama went on to win Player of the Month for December in his first term at Celtic Park, and SPFL Young Player of the Year the following season. Starting wage demands as an issue, Wanyama sought a move away from Scotland and was snapped up by Southampton for £12.5 million, a record fee for the Scottish Premier League. It would seem a match made in heaven; a rising star seeking a bigger challenge, a physical presence in a physical league, a club famous for giving young players opportunities, and a young manager looking to implement his aggressive tactics that had worked well in the Spanish league.

Fast forward 3 years and much has remained the same. Mauricio Pochettino is impressing European football with the most tactically interesting side in the Premier League, Wanyama is still seeking bigger challenges that match his undeniable talent, and the midfielder is still young (he turns 25 on Saturday). With the Kenyan speaking out at the Southampton hierarchy in 2014 for letting the Argentine manager leave, and with the Spurs’ boss publicly stating his interest in Wanyama for over a year now, it seemed only a matter of time before the two would reunite. But will Victor Wanyama’s (probable) move to Spurs work out well?

celtic vs barca

Wanyama’s tactical and defensive abilities were showcased in the famous Celtic victory over Barcelona in the 2012/13 season.

It is clear that Wanyama’s style of play suits Pochettino’s aggressive, high pressing style. His energy and strength, as well as decisiveness on the ball, are what have made him such a success for the Saints. He also fits the Spurs bill – young, enthusiastic, and able to play in multiple positions. For the start of his time at Celtic, he played at centre back under Lennon, although this was not his favoured position and his natural talents as a centre mid soon shone through. He also has Champions League pedigree, something that Spurs will need if they are to fight on all fronts this coming season; he scored the opening goal in Celtic’s remarkable 2-1 win over Barcelona in the 12-13 season, putting in a pitch perfect performance as an industrious, tactical leader of a side with just 11% of possession. At just £11 million, this deal seems like a no-brainer for the North Londoners.

dier and dembele

Where does Wanyama feature in Pochettino’s plans?

The gamble, however, comes into how Wanyama would be utilised by Pochettino’s side. His versatility, whilst being such a strength, is also a slight issue for Spurs. Mauricio Pochettino plays a free flowing setup, with Kane, Eriksen, Lamela and Alli given licence to roam in the final third. Likewise, Walker and Rose are given the freedom of the flanks, and even the centre backs are encouraged to move out of defence to join the attack. It would seem, therefore, that Wanyama’s talents moving both forward and backwards would be a huge plus. However, Spurs’ formation hinges on their two central midfielders, Dier and Dembele, being sensible and following certain rules. Dier must not track the ball when defending, but rather defending the space in front of the back four, cutting out passes and preventing an opposition number 10 from utilising the space. When spurs attack, he moves back between the centre backs to form a 3 man defence capable of stopping a counterattack. Dembele’s rules are looser; chase the ball in midfield by hassling and harrying the opposition, denying them time and space. Moving forward, his job is to link the ball out from the back to the creative players in front of him, and help switch play between the wing backs of Walker and Rose. He is not to make runs beyond the striker or take up the space in between the lines, thus leaving room for eriksen and Lamela to cut in and operate.

Now, Wanyama is clearly not suited to Dier’s strict role; his defensive qualities come in his tackling, strength, and pressure, not his tactical awareness (which is not on the level of Dier’s anyway). His attacking talents would also be wasted by slotting him at centre back as Spurs attack. Unfortunately, due to Spurs’ lack of depth in the defensive midfield role (it is just Dier and the occasionally fit Nabil Bentaleb), it is likely that the purchase of Wanyama is to fit that bill.

wanyama vs dembele

Wanyama (left) and Dembele (right) may find themselves fighting for a first team place at Tottenham next season.

If, however, he is used as a player to back up (or even rival) Dembele, there are fresh problems. Dembele’s defensive duties suit Wanyama perfectly; in this there is nothing wrong. Both are capable of dominating opposition midfielders. However, moving forward, there are differences. Dembele is fantastic with the ball at his feet; hard to tackle, quick, and looks to play the ball early. In circumstances where he cannot, however, he plays the safe pass, allowing Tottenham’s more creative players to take over and unlock a defence if need be. In doing this, he keeps the attack going rather than risking it and bringing the attack to an untimely end. Wanyama, however, does not quite posses these qualities. He is not as quick as Dembele, and thus is more likely to slow the play down and miss the opportunities that playing forward quickly creates. Because of this, his attacking game revolves more around playing a clever balls or linking up directly with the attackers – something Dembele has instructions not to do. Playing Wanyama as the less defensive centre mid could slow Spurs down and cost them the ball, or opportunities to attack gaps in the opposition defence. Given that Dembele’s very specific role is so crucial to the way Spurs play, Wanyama’s inclusion could result in games much like the catastrophic end of Tottenham’s 15-16 season.

It is a gamble. Play him like Dier and you risk weakening Spurs defensively. Play him like Dembele and you risk weakening Spurs offensively. But having only missed 14 career games through injury, and at just £11 million, Wanyama could be a great signing as a backup. Pochettino has shown, through reviving Dembele’s career and even making Ryan Mason look half decent, that he can get a centre mid to play well by playing his way. Can he get Victor Wanyama playing his way too, and make him a successful Spurs player?

By Joseph Cohen.

(Images: Sky Sports/BarcaStats/Zimbio)

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