Ben Davies and Emerson Royal show Spurs need fewer square pegs in round holes

When asked on Friday if the absence of his first-choice full-backs Pedro Porro and Destiny Udogie would alter his team’s approach, Ange Postecoglou was typically unequivocal.

“It doesn’t change the way we play,” he said, “but a player brings their own unique ability to each position. The structure won’t change and the way we set up won’t change but different players bring different attributes.”

So it was no surprise on Saturday when Postecoglou asked Emerson Royal and Ben Davies to perform similar roles against Wolverhampton Wanderers to the ones Porro and Udogie have mastered this season. 

Postecoglou’s full-backs do not operate as conventional defenders. They are asked to ‘invert’ into central midfield and, in Porro’s case, almost act as the team’s playmaker.

This is especially key against low blocks that are designed to shackle Spurs’ creative options further forward — low blocks like the one Wolves used on Saturday, which meant plenty of touches for Royal in central positions. 

The result wasn’t pretty. Royal lost the ball in dangerous areas twice in the first half and when he tried to be more expansive, he clipped a crossfield pass over to Davies straight out of play. Wolves scored their opening goal soon after. 

Royal started at right-back for the second time in this season’s Premier League (Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

Davies had a better time of it on the left, but that was largely because he got to do more conventional full-back things. Davies’ best moment of the game came just before half-time when he made an overlapping run beyond Son Heung-min and put in a dangerous cross that Wolves bundled out of play for a corner. 

Both full-backs spent less time centrally than Porro and Udogie normally do, but they were still out of their comfort zones. Royal, in particular, is best when asked to put in a shift getting up and down the flank. Davies does, at least, have plenty of experience playing in more central areas, even if it’s been in different roles. 


But other than telling us that Royal isn’t comfortable playing as a Postecoglou right-back (this was his first league start in that position since the opening weekend), which we knew already, what can we conclude from how the Spurs head coach used his two full-backs against Wolves on Saturday?

The first is that he’s not going to take the short-term option and tweak the full-back roles to suit Royal or Davies. He could have asked one or both of them to play a more conventional up-and-down role, but that sort of compromise is not in his make-up. He believes it would dilute what he’s trying to achieve and the clarity of his message to the players. 

The second is that for Royal to be a part of Postecoglou’s long-term plans, he will have to adapt his game and improve — something Porro has done to an immeasurable degree this season. 

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Davies has played more games at centre-back than left-back this season (Stephanie Meek – CameraSport/Getty Images)

That kind of transformation is possible, but what tends to happen in the kind of rebuild Postecoglou is attempting is that the first season is about seeing which players can cope with the head coach’s demands, and which can’t. 

We’re only two transfer windows into Postecoglou’s reign, and it’s fair to assume that plenty of players from this first season will be upgraded and moved on this summer and beyond. Royal is solid, but along with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, he could be one of those players who, in years to come, it feels hard to believe played under Postecoglou. (For example: did you realise Daniel Sturridge didn’t leave Liverpool until four years after Jurgen Klopp was appointed?)

Given Postecoglou won’t change how he asks his team to play, the reality — as frustrating as it might be for some Spurs fans — is that if players are missing there are going to be some games like this. Trying to play ‘Ange-ball’ without Ange players won’t always work. This begs the question of whether Postecoglou should be more adaptable. But we know the answer to that question. 

And we should be wary of pinning too much of this on just Spurs’ full-backs on the day. Tottenham, in general, struggled to create chances, were too open on the break, and this performance was by no means an isolated incident. They’ve not been at their fluent best for a while.


After the game, Postecoglou refused to blame the defeat on Spurs missing their first-choice full-backs.“We’ve had a lot of injuries this year, we’ve certainly performed better than that when we have had injuries,” Postecoglou said. “So I don’t think that’s the reason. Like I said our general level of performance wasn’t where it should be.”

The good news is that with no game this weekend, Porro and Udogie are expected to be back for Spurs’ next game — at home to Crystal Palace on March 2. While Spurs have absorbed a lot of injuries this season, being without both of their full-backs again would be a worry. This early into Postecoglou’s time at Spurs, this is a team, not a squad, built to play his football. 

And as disheartening as that can be on days like this, one has to trust that there’ll be fewer round pegs in square holes as the Postecoglou project evolves.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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