“Why in the world did we sign him?” asked a disgruntled Southampton supporter on TV after a rather underwhelming display by their new signing Victor Wanyama during their harrowing 1-0 defeat away at newly promoted Norwich City. Having arrived for a hefty £12.5 million fee from Celtic in the summer of 2013, Southampton fans expected their new signing to hit the ground running.
The primary issue (or motivation) behind that expectation was that most fans, even outside of Southampton, had not seen much of Victor Wanyama except his monster performance for Celtic during their famous 2-1 defeat of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2012. Wanyama was playing in a different dimension that evening, eating up any spaces Barcelona had the temerity to leave open in midfield.
In the Premier League this season, he has scored just twice, has exactly zero assists to his name, and has only created 1 “Big Chance” (according to premierleague.com). So why should we pay any attention to this seemingly average midfielder?
Well, for starters, Wanyama has played every single minute of Tottenham’s Premier League campaign, the only player to do so. Given the amount of talent stacked in that Tottenham roster, manager Mauricio Pochettino is not lacking in options when he wants to bring in a fresh face or rotate the squad if he feels the team is in a slump and requires a wake up call. It shows the level of responsibility Pochettino trusts Wanyama to carry that he is the only outfield player (after Harry Kane), who has the indispensable tag attached to his name. The cliched “first name on the team sheet” term is utterly apt when it comes to the Kenyan midfielder.
The season prior to Spurs signing him from the Saints, Pochettino was content with Eric Dier alongside Moussa Dembele in midfield. Dier had a stellar season which culminated in him being called up to the England national team. As a result, Wanyama’s signing was assumed to be a plan ‘B’ to Dier – not quite a statement signing but a solid one in its own right. However, injuries and suspensions meant that Wanyama saw more of the starting line-up than most people expected in his first season at Spurs.
It became clear early on that Wanyama’s ball playing abilities were rather limited. When the Spurs’ center-backs split, Wanyama was expected to drop back and start the possession. However, this experiment was soon scrapped after Wanyama was robbed of the ball twice against West Bromwich Albion and while both mistakes did not result in a goal, the alarm bells had gone off loudly enough for Pochettino to alter his tactics.
Spurs switched to a 4-1-4-1 formation earlier this season, with two additional midfielders in front of Wanyama to take all the attacking responsibility from him. It freed him up to break the opposition attacks and gobble up any space left by the defence he was shielding. Tottenham decimated Manchester City 2-0 at White Hart Lane (albeit a very willing City side) but the flaws and limitations of this system were posing problems against teams who set up low defensive blocks with the sole intention of blocking out any Tottenham attacks. Since Spurs use modern wingers (as opposed to the traditional ones), they tend to cut inside and that just added two extra bodies to an already crowded central midfield. It made the system predictable and congested, and gave Christian Eriksen a serious lack of space in which to operate in. Alderweireld and Vertonghen (or Dier when one of the two was injured), were consistently failing to connect with the attack via their now famously on point long diagonals. And when your center back can do this, why in the world should you not do it more often?
Earlier this season saw a switch to a back three at Arsenal which resulted in a stalemate (the only Arsenal goal came from a Kevin Wimmer own goal). Spurs had Vertonghen and Dier either side of Kevin Wimmer at the back and Wanyama and Dembele in front of them. It was basically a dare for a free-flowing Arsenal side – come and break us down if you can.
The 3-4-3, as Chelsea fans are by now all too aware, splits the centre backs and makes it possible for them to join the transition from defence to attack. Since Spurs boast two extremely accomplished ball-playing CBs in Vertonghen and Alderweireld, this is a major threat to the opposition. When they step forward, Wanyama stays behind and snuffs out any counter attacking threat. He has proven to be an excellent tackler and reader of the game (2.7 tackles per games in the Premier League and 1.4 interceptions) to go along with his excellent pass completion rate (87.2% in all competitions). Another advantage is that with at least one ball playing CB behind him and Dembele (or Winks or Eriksen) next to him, Wanyama is completely freed of any attacking responsibilities. And finally, this system allows the wing backs (Kyle Walker and Danny Rose) to bomb forward and open up spaces for Eriksen and Dele Alli in the middle.
Barring injuries, Tottenham are one of the most balanced and settled sides in the Premier League and it is no surprise to see them in the top 4 under the management of Pochettino. They’ve come a long way from a midfield made up of Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone and Nabir Bentaleb to the current crop. Waynama’s contribution, while heavily under-rated and over-looked by most experts, remains staggeringly important to Tottenham’s success.