In Hollywood, there’s a concept known as scene plumbing. It refers to the role of a particular type of actor who, rather than being a leading man or woman, is employed for continuity purposes. Grease in a scene’s mechanics, if you will. On the basis that films and television programs have to pace themselves and can’t just be a series of a high-spots, these actors are essential to pacing. They’re usually versatile and adaptable and, fundamentally, are there to allow the stars to shine. Gunther in Friends, maybe, or KACL’s various station managers in Frasier.
Football doesn’t really have a term for its equivalent, but they definitely exist – and Eric Dier is an example of one.
Currently, Dier is the subject of transfer speculation. Manchester United are rumoured to be interested in him and, apparently, Tottenham have set an asking price of around £50m. United’s fans have balked at that; even with recent inflation considered, that seems an awful lot of money for a player who isn’t individually spectacular.
In their defence, it does seem slightly out of step with their club’s recent movements. Jose Mourinho shows little interest in organic development and United, while still in the business of winning, are no longer solely motivated by sporting success. Both appear aligned on this issue: they want stars of the game, players who glint on the pitch and draw on the balance sheet.
Dier is not that. He certainly wouldn’t be the kind of vanity signing that has become the club’s standard in recent seasons.
And it is easy to overlook his value. At Tottenham, his first-team worth has been defined by a rare ability to play a variety of positions to a high, unwavering standard. Under Mauricio Pochettino, he has been employed as right-sided full-back, a deep-lying central midfielder, and a centre-half in both a four and three-man defence. Adaptable players are nothing new, but – by today’s standards – it’s rare to find one capable of performing to such a high level in such a breadth of roles.
Flexibility is a skill. Often, players like Dier are dismissed as “jacks of all trades, but masters of none”, but that description would do him an egregious disservice. Rather than being someone who simply fills a vacant space, his skillset has proven eclectic enough for him to be able to bring something unique to every position he’s played, be it his delivery at full-back, his broader-than-assumed passing range and ball-winning in midfield, or his defensive discipline alongside Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
At the time of writing, no other player in the Premier League offers the same flexibility. Others may operate in more than one position, but always with some kind of opportunity cost. When you consider also that Tottenham are prone to shifting their shape several times within the same game, a player like Dier – who is able to flow into the tactical fractures which occur as a result of those tweaks – is really worth his weight in gold. Scarcity implies value and, within the context of the Premier League, he is a footballing unicorn.
In fact, on the basis that £50m now only buys a very good rather than an outstanding player – and that such a fee is typically attached to one capable only of performing one role – Levy’s valuation of Dier is very reasonable at a time when squad dexterity is at a premium and formations are as fluid in this country as they’ve ever been. Alongside Christian Eriksen, Mousa Dembele or Harry Kane, someone of his profile will always struggle to stand out, but expecting him to do so is a mistake; he’s picked by Spurs to accentuate the value of those players, not to challenge them for aesthetic appeal.
That multiplying effect has shown itself all over the pitch. When part of a back-three, for instance, his ability to cover wider areas from the right of the trio allows Toby Alderweireld to remain stable and central at the base of the defence, while also lessening the defensive responsibility carried by either Kyle Walker or Kieran Trippier. Neither is overly-reliable in one-on-one situations and so that layer of protection is crucial to both their effect on a game and the perception of them as players.
It’s not a coincidence either that, when used in midfield, Dier’s presence has allowed Victor Wanyama to be far more aggressive with the ball and Dembele to operate further beyond the halfway line. His distribution is reliable and occasionally incisive too, but he has also shown a tremendous capacity for tactical comprehension; he seems to have been educated to a far greater level than the average British player and that’s visible in his anticipation. It’s a slightly dated stereotype, but while many of the footballers developed in this country are capable of following instruction, most appear to struggle in read-and-react situations or any scenario in which they’re asked to improvise. Dier doesn’t. He has the capacity to problem-solve which so many of his British contemporaries lack – and that’s likely the trait which has animated his move from the fringes of the Sporting Lisbon squad to the top of the Premier League in just three years.
To call him a plumbing player may admittedly by slightly derisory. Instead, maybe Dier is more of a blank Scrabble tile? Someone whose individual worth is slightly vague, but whose importance rises exponentially when combined with more obviously useful pieces. To question his value is to underestimate his range of functions and, ultimately, to do that is to misunderstand the forces which bind football teams.