Premier League

Foyth has bright future despite mixed fortunes

 • by James Piercy
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As far as full league debuts go, Juan Foyth’s performance against Wolves at Molineux recalled the experience of another Tottenham Hotspur defender, albeit when he made his bow for Real Madrid.

In the annals of dreadful debuts, Jonathan Woodgate’s first 65 minutes for Los Blancos against Athletic Bilbao on September 22, 2005 is regularly considered the worst of all time.

Starting more than a year after he completed a switch to the Santiago Bernabéu from Leeds United, Woodgate scored a spectacular own goal and was then sent-off in the second half after accumulating two yellow cards.

That will take some topping but Foyth suffered his own nightmare second 45 minutes in the Black Country as, with Spurs comfortably leading 3-0, he conceded two penalties in the space of 11 minutes for their opponents to regain a foothold in the match and nearly mount a comeback.

Thankfully, for him, Tottenham were able to secure the win (as Madrid did in beating Bilbao 3-1) and Mauricio Pochettino was on hand to offer some words of comfort for the young Argentine centre-back, insisting he just needed to move on from the mistakes.

Unfortunately, those two errors – the first of which Kieran Trippier’s ludicrous nutmeg attempt at the corner flag made him just as culpable – clouded what had been a positive performance by the 20-year-old.

It wasn’t a particularly special defensive display by Tottenham but Foyth’s distribution and confidence on the ball stood out until he made two rash decisions in the penalty area.

Pochettino’s words of wisdom – the preserve of sports psychologists who implore athletes to “live in the moment” and never dwell on the past, for better or worse – proved the perfect medicine for Foyth, whose second performance in a Spurs shirt proved slightly more positive.

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Scoring the winner in a narrow victory over Crystal Palace is exactly the kind of tonic to move on from a difficult evening and it showed a real sense of character within the Argentine that he was able to perform so well seven days later.

As Pochettino said at the time: “I was a centre-back and you’re involved in these situations. The trust from us is massive and from his team-mates. He has great potential and showed real character. It is important for him to feel he’s a Premier League player.

“With experience, he’s going to improve and make mistakes and fewer mistakes. That will happen with 29 or 30-year-old players. He moved on and we all helped him forget.”

“Trust” is the key word there because it would have been easier for the Tottenham manager to drop Foyth for the Palace game, reinstate Davinson Sánchez or play Eric Dier there, and cast it aside for now as a failed experiment. But to what end?

That would be detrimental to Foyth’s development, and Spurs as a squad, plus by playing him against Palace, so soon after those mistakes, it provided the perfect test of his mental strength: in short, that game was far more indicative of the defender, than what transpired at Molineux.

Subsequently, he’s been retained in the Tottenham defence and put in a strong performance at Wembley against Chelsea, having excelled for Argentina against Mexico during the international break, as Spurs produced arguably their best display of the season in winning 3-1.

It wasn’t without its nervy moments as just moments after picking Eden Hazard’s pocket with an inch-perfect tackle, he was a little fortunate not to concede another penalty after bringing the Chelsea forward down.

Clearly, Foyth has excellent tackling instincts and execution but his hunger to try and steal possession every time, as opposed to jockeying his opponent, is an area for considerable improvement, one that can only be worked on and enhanced in match situations.

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After showcasing his distribution and nearly scoring with a flicked header, his weakness at defending the aerial ball was revealed with Chelsea’s consolation as Olivier Giroud got between Foyth and Serge Aurier to score.

Mixing the good with the not-so good is to be wholly expected for such a young defender, it’s part of the gamble and why so few top teams play 20-year-olds in the heart of defence. But the long-term gains are obvious and clearly, Pochettino rates Foyth as a footballer of considerable promise.

That said, Pochettino has to an extent been forced into this position, and has admitted as such, with injuries to Jan Vertonghen, who was on the bench against Chelsea following a six-week hamstring problem, and now Sánchez who could be ruled out until the new year with a groin injury.

What Foyth brings to the party, approaching the levels of Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, is his passing ability from defence, something which has been a constant reservation surrounding Sanchez.

His 50.0 accurate passes per 90 minutes rank him 16th among Premier League centre-backs this season and 16.33 of them are forward, which places him 40th. Not spectacular numbers, of course, but certainly of note given his lack of experience.

Where Foyth really stands out is how he can carry the ball forward into midfield, almost like an old-fashioned sweeper. Only three centre-backs boast higher successful take-ons per 90 minutes than his 0.66.

There are concerns over his heading ability, as he’s averaging just 0.66 duels won and has a success rate is just 33 per cent which is simply not high enough for a centre-back in the Premier League. How much that has to do with his relatively short stature is up for debate.

Foyth stands at 5ft 9ins which is small for a centre-back and while there have been plenty of examples contrary to the rule, being 6ft+ certainly gives you a head-start on your contemporaries. It’s a physical disadvantage he’s simply going to have to overcome.

For some managers that would be enough of a red flag to not persist with Foyth but Pochettino clearly likes what he sees and how his countryman represents a new kind of centre-back whose best attributes are not necessarily in a purely defensive sense.

The mistakes will need to be eradicated, the anticipation enhanced but the 20-year-old should not have his natural style shaken out of him by the physicality of the Premier League. Thankfully, he has a manager who has the utmost trust and faith in his protégé. His development over the next 12 months will be fascinating to watch.

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