Tottenham Hotspur may have unearthed their newest star in the form of match-winner Eric Dier. His impressive all-around performance against West Ham culminated in a coolly taken stoppage-time winner.
All seemed lost when Kyle Naughton was red-carded in the first half, but the versatile Dier came to Spurs' rescue. Taking up a position on the right side of defence, he combined a rugged display with selective attacking runs and could have been Spurs' man of the match even before scoring.
WhoScored.com rightfully awarded Dier the honours after his impressive debut.
In his relatively brief time as centre-back, he filled the void left by the absence of Jan Vertonghen admirably. Dier was assigned Carlton Cole at corners, and the former England striker was kept well harnessed.
Also of note was his positioning. In both attack and defence, Dier was exactly where he needed to be. Twice in the opening stages Nabil Bentaleb was caught in possession, but Dier moved beyond him to offer a release ball.
He and Younes Kaboul appear to be developing an understanding. He allowed Kaboul to attack the ball on the ground and in the air while he swept in behind. Kaboul's impressive aerial ability and aggressive instincts make him a fine centre-back to partner a more cultured defender like Dier.
When West Ham did attack, Dier was watchful and constantly adjusting his positioning in response to the developing moves. It was an excellent display.
When Tottenham signed the Sporting Lisbon centre-back just two weeks ago, it came as something of a surprise.
There had been little speculation regarding the deal in advance of it being announced and when the details eventually emerged, it seemed that Spurs had simply snapped up a bargain. The Metro, quoting Sporting's official statement, explained that Tottenham had triggered a release clause in Dier's contract.
There was little expectation then that Dier might start the opening game of the Premier League season. Just 20 years old, surely he would not be thrown into a heated local derby. But not only did he go through a baptism of fire, he flourished. Dier was excellent at centre-back, impressive as an emergency full-back and, implausibly, scored the winning goal.
After such a performance, has Dier earned the right to keep his place in Mauricio Pochettino's starting lineup?
England Under-21 manager Gareth Southgate responded to Dier joining Tottenham with circumspection, telling the FA's official website "He’s a young centre-back who will mature but he plays in a position which takes time to develop so it’s an interesting move for him to test himself over here."
As Southgate points out, Dier plays in a position in which experience is vital. The only central defenders who blossom at such a young age are those who play regularly. At the same age, Ledley King played 23 games for Spurs. John Terry, after a short-term loan spell with Nottingham Forest, made 26 appearances for Chelsea in his 20th year.
By contrast Gary Cahill, who is now one of England's most assured central defenders, saw his career stall at Aston Villa and had to jump to Bolton in order to get the games he needed.
Whether Dier thought he would not play enough at Sporting after the Lisbon giants bought three central defenders in the transfer window is unclear. Perhaps, as Southgate also points out, "he might feel that it helps his cause because it’s easier for us to get to see him."
Under the tutelage of Pochettino, Dier is well-placed to exploit his own significant talent. He can grow into an excellent ball-playing central defender and naturally succeed Jan Vertonghen.
Regardless, Dier has made the decision to return to England and, following his debut, it seems to be a gamble that is paying off. Already ahead of Vlad Chiriches and Michael Dawson, Dier is in a three-way competition for two central defensive positions. Vertonghen, Kaboul and Dier are the clear favourites.
Dier was not perfect in his debut. He failed to cut out a cross in the 15th minute that led to a West Ham chance and misplaced several passes. Twice in the first half Bentaleb lost possession as he chased down loose Dier passes.
As impressive as he was, Dier has not shown the necessary quality to displace Jan Vertonghen. However, owing to his delayed pre-season, the Belgian is not yet fit. Until he returns, Dier is assured of a starting place in his favoured position. But when Vertonghen is ready to start once more, things become more complicated.
It is difficult to imagine Dier and Vertonghen playing together in central defence. They are both so similar in terms of their playing styles and mentality, and Spurs would miss the physicality and aggression of Kaboul or even Chiriches. Dier appears likely to play Vertonghen's understudy in the near future.
It could be Dier's versatility that keeps him in the first-team picture. As he showed against West Ham, Dier is comfortable at right-back. He has also played there for Sporting. In fact, he made his debut at full-back and sent in the cross for the winning goal.
With Kyle Naughton suspended and Kyle Walker's fitness in doubt, Dier provides a ready solution to a tricky problem. Pochettino evidently trusts Dier, and it would be easier for him to select a player that has already proven his worth. The likes of Ryan Fredericks and even Kyle Walker-Peters may be more suited, but Dier has shown his capability in the role.
Dier is likely to play many games this season. With Europa League football to subsidise domestic appearances, the young centre-back should exceed the numbers of appearances made by King and Terry at the same age. Under Pochettino and alongside Kaboul and Vertonghen, Dier is in the perfect position to develop into an England player.
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