A good weekend for Tottenham, who taught Huddersfield a harsh lesson in their own stadium. The four-goal win for Mauricio Pochettino’s side was a measure of their dominance and might have been far larger had his players been in a crueler mood. Elsewhere, Pochettino’s squad options are starting to broaden: Danny Rose is thought to be as close as two weeks from full fitness and could even return for the Champions League game against Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu.
Rose’s injury difficulties are complex. The damage to his medial ligaments sustained against Sunderland last season has now kept him out for nine months and, clearly, this return will involve a re-learning curve. The full-back was playing the best football of his career before getting hurt and, given his style of play and his position’s reliance on conditioning, he will not immediately reappear as the same player.
Nothing new there. Supporters are aware of the timelags involved with such injuries and generally tolerate them. In Rose’s case, though, he faces a battle for hearts and minds as well as fitness. His interview with The Sun, deviously scheduled for publication on the eve of the current season, has likely damaged his relationship with some fans forever. Rose may have backtracked on his remarks and issued an apology twenty-four hours later, but that will count for little. He and his representatives will have known perfectly well what the impact of that interview was likely to be and even by today’s standards that episode was eye-watteringly brazen.
So what to do next?
Pochettino’s first task is purely sporting. In place of Rose and with the benefit of continued selection, Ben Davies has developed admirably. Although arguably always a superior tactical defender, it was Davies’s hesitancy on the ball which reduced him to a back-up. While Rose accelerated into the final-third and was typically highly aggressive around the penalty box, his understudy was stymied by caution, preferring a cut-back or a square-pass to a one-on-one contest. It was problematic, particularly for a side who are as reliant as Tottenham are on full-backs for their width.
Davies’s imperfections haven’t disappeared entirely, but he’s certainly a changed player. His relationship with Dele Alli, Harry Kane, and Christian Eriksen is a key part of Spurs’ attacking chemistry while, in the other half of the pitch, Jan Vertonghen appears to have benefitted from his positional stability. There may be a case for reinstating Rose, he remains a fine player, but there’s little basis for demoting Davies.
‘Demoting’ is perhaps too strong. Because of the physical demands on the Tottenham full-backs, Pochettino has always employed rotation. There remains a clear hierarchy though and, whether they’re sharing games or not, it’s not difficult to work out who the preferred option is. When Rose and Davies are both fit and available, one will be trusted in the top-tier fixtures, the other will be reduced to the role of leg-saving caretaker. Both will play, so this isn’t a situation which calls for an outright decision, but one player will feel significantly more valued than the other – and there lies the complexity.
At his best, Rose remains the superior player, certainly the better offensive option, but his future beyond the end of the current season is extremely tenuous. Given his remarks in August, it seems likely that if Tottenham fail to win the Premier League this year (or do not award him an enormous, salary structure-shattering wage increase) he will use that as an opportunity to force a move away. With that in mind, can Pochettino really afford to grant significant playing time to someone who is not as emotionally invested as the players around him? Additionally, while a fully-fit Rose is of obvious worth, what would be the cost of allowing him to appear in the marquee games ahead of Davies, a player who has been patient, who never verbalised his frustrations while out of the team, and who is far more likely to be at the club next year. Moreover, a player whose form warrants the opportunity to play against the biggest sides.
There’s a balance to be found. Irrespective of the public mood, Rose will also be a saleable asset at the end of this season and, gratifying as some supporters might find it, excluding him from the first-team entirely serves nobody’s interest. Somehow, then, Pochettino must keep Davies content and progressing at his current rate, preserve Rose’s value by allowing him to regain form, and also protect Tottenham’s positive energy. In the past, he has ruthlessly purged negatives from his squad and created a vacuum around players he didn’t trust or value. But in this instance no such opportunity exists; Rose is the first mutinous player not to be exiled and certainly the first who can expect to remain continually involved.
Truthfully, life was probably simpler for Pochettino with Rose injured. Although it may have created a personnel shortage, his quarantining from the first-team allowed his tabloid dalliance to become irrelevant and more positive stories to grow in its place. They’ve beaten Dortmund, have maximum Champions League points and have just recorded a fourth-straight away win in the Premier League. Now, though, a new challenge begins: the Argentinian will have to extract as much good as he can from this situation without letting the obvious negatives poison the water supply.