Central midfield is usually the beating heart of a team, but this season it seems as though Pochettino has been carrying out a bit of backstreet surgery to get Tottenham's blood flowing - with mixed results.
Some people like to unwind after a hard day of pretending to work by watching a bit of TV, maybe play a game or two of FIFA, or simply by hooking themselves up to their IV drip of vodka. Not me. Instead I could think of nothing better to do than trawl through Tottenham's line-ups this season to try and put my finger on why we so often look like we lack shape, familiarity, and general coherency. What I found tells a story of experiments, injuries, breakthroughs, and ultimately a Spurs team that is still very much a work in progress.
Going back through recent seasons Tottenham's central midfield seemed to pick itself. Palacios and Jenas enjoyed some solid months together; Modric and Parker (interchanging on occasions with Sandro) were at the centre of arguably our most impressive side in years; and for all too brief a spell we saw what appeared to be a genuine understanding between Sandro and Dembele. Since then this pivotal area of the team seems to have become something of a free for all. Central midfielders that have played a part this season include Holtby, Sandro, Paulinho, Capoue, Dembele, Bentaleb, Mason, and Stambouli. In total we have had a staggering eight different central midfield combinations in our starting line-ups. Let's take a look through the square window to see what they have been so far...
Holtby made two appearances, and Sandro started one game (all of these appearances were in Europe) so it's probably best to discount them altogether. Instead we'll start with the much maligned £17m Brazilian International misfit, Paulinho. The interesting thing to note about our #8 is that all eight of his starts have been alongside two central midfielders (including three times with Stambouli and Bentaleb, and four times with Stambouli and Dembele). That's seven out of eight appearances with the DM Stambouli. This suggests that not only has Paulinho made less appearances than any of our current central midfielders, but also that Pochettino considers him to be more of an attacking option, and one that needs a more defensive-minded player behind him.
Perhaps surprisingly the most frequent central midfield combination under Pochettino has been Stambouli and Dembele, who have started a not particularly impressive seven games together. As mentioned above, Paulinho played in four of those seven games.
In games where we have started just two recognised central midfielders, the combinations of Mason and Capoue, and Mason and Bentaleb have been Pochettino's most popular, tied on six.
That's followed by Stambouli and Bentaleb with five (again as above, three of these with Paulinho). After that there have been three appearances of Dembele and Capoue, three by Bentaleb and Capoue, followed by two appearances of Stambouli and Mason.
Now I appreciate that these stats don't tell the whole picture (as they seldom do) - especially as many of these combinations have come about in European or low-level domestic cup fixtures - but it's still something of an eye opener to find that Stambouli, Bentaleb, and Mason have actually started more games than any other central midfielders (with fifteen starts in total). It's particularly surprising when you consider that Stambouli is a new signing, and Mason only broke into the team at the end of September. Capoue (thirteen), Dembele (twelve), and Paulinho (eight) make up the remaining starting appearance statistics.
Notice any anomalies? That stand-out win for Pochettino's Spurs against Chelsea featured a central midfield combination of Dembele and Bentaleb for 76 minutes after Mason went off injured. To date they have yet to start together.
Of course on and off-field events have played their part in this eclectic series of combinations. Capoue's starts dropped off pretty sharply (with rumours of dressing room altercations with Pochettino), whilst both Bentaleb and Mason have missed games through injury. The latter two appear to have been (prior to Bentaleb's recent excursions with Algeria) Pochettino's new flavour of the month. Yet their appearances, marked as they are by a mix of inexperience and youthful confidence, have been mixed at best.
I understand that this is very much a 'transition season' for both Pochettino and Spurs, but out of these stats a pattern emerges of indecision and incoherency that goes some way to understanding why we have struggled so badly to develop a discernible character, style, and general identity as a team. Having missed out on Schneiderlin (much as AVB missed out on his identified linchpin, Moutinho), Pochettino has been left playing a game of hot potatoes with the midfielders at his disposal, and this critical area of the team has been left without some much needed consistency.
That there is still so much debate about what our best midfield combination might be tells a thousand words. This needs to be Pochettino's priority if he wants to stamp his mark on Tottenham's history. Whether this happens through the transfer market, or on the training ground, the game of musical chairs taking place at the hub of Tottenham Hotspur needs to come to an end.