Eric Dier needs less coddling. His place in both the Spurs starting XI and the England squad have been guaranteed for a little too long.
Dier is likeable. He’s positionally and tactically versatile. His attitude and teamwork are beyond reproach. He’s intelligent, has (sort of) spoken out against Brexit, and he’s one of very few English people players that speaks another language, in this case, Portuguese. These are all good reasons to want to have him around.
For nearly two seasons, however, he’s been in decline. He spent the majority of the 2016/17 season as one of three centrebacks, with Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. He was clearly the poorest of the three but despite the odd lapse in concentration he was competent enough and fairly progressive with his passing from the back. He was also extremely well protected. As well as the two impeccable Belgians beside him, the then-best pair of wing-backs in the league, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, bombed up and down both flanks. In front of him were peak Dembele and Wanyama, roving, destroying and dribbling out of pressure to relieve the defense.
Dier didn’t enjoy playing centre-back, though, and for Spurs he was upgradable in that position. The signing of Davinson Sanchez and a massive injury layoff for Wanyama pushed the Englishman back into central midfield, where he spent the whole of the 2017/18 season next to Dembele. He was fine. Passable but rarely more. Overall, he appeared to regress.
He started to lack composure under pressure and his passing became wayward. The lack of mobility that comes with a frame his size became increasingly exposed as Pochettino reverted to a 4-2-3-1 in the second half of the season in order to fit in all of Son, Eriksen and Dele behind Kane.
After a decent if uninspiring season, Dier justifiably went to the World Cup with England, but also justifiably lost his place in the starting XI to Jordan Henderson (not something you want on your resume). Despite calmly striking the winning penalty against Colombia, the tournament was not a personal success.
This season has admittedly been injury-hit. No pre-season and surgery for appendicitis at the end of 2018 has seen him play only 16 games, but he’s been poor in many of them. The wayward passing that crept into his game has remained, but the main problem appears to be the ease at which he is bypassed. With Spurs’ central midfield options thinned out by the sale of Dembele and the premature demise of Wanyama, much of the defensive burden has been placed on Winks and the rejuvenated Sissoko. Winks’ agility and neat, progressive passing out of tight spaces and Sissoko’s ability to dribble his way out of pressure and retain possession have left the 25 year-old Dier’s skillset looking underwhelming and outdated – a sign of how quickly football changes.
After another return from injury, Dier came straight back into the Spurs team against Southampton as his side collapsed and lost 2-1. After a decent first-half performance, the defensive midfielder went missing in the second as an energized Saints team pressed hard. Not that the loss can be laid solely at his feet, but for someone who is supposed to be an authoritative defensive presence and a player thought to embody his manager’s spirit, there was no show of leadership to help his team manage the game and get a result.
Despite being in poor form and not match-fit, Dier has again been selected for the latest England squad. This time he’ll have not just Jordan Henderson but also an intimidatingly good Declan Rice to compete with, the latter more than deserving a starting spot based on league performances.
Never the best centre-back and now struggling to be the best defensive midfield option for club or country, Dier’s role has become a little unclear. His versatility and professionalism may keep him at the top level longer than perhaps his talent truly merits, but he’ll surely know that improvement will be needed if he is to be more than a useful squad option in the future.
If they could, would Spurs go back two summers and sell him to Manchester United for the 50m they were offered? It would seem good money now.