By Jay Jaffa
Tottenham are set to strengthen their defence and address another problem position with the signing of Mateo Musacchio.
Villarreal coach Marcelino has indicated he expects the defender to make the move to White Hart Lane and is already lamenting the departure of the 23-year-old.
For those who are not avid viewers of La Liga, Musacchio has likely gone under the radar. He has appeared just twice for Argentina and spent 2012-13 in the Segunda Division following the Yellow Submarine’s relegation a year earlier. Surprising, then, that he is on the brink of joining Mauricio Pochettino’s revolution at Spurs.
Yet while he may not be a household name, the 23-year-old has surpassed expectations ever since graduating from River Plate’s academy and may just be the perfect Pochettino defender.
The Rosario-born centre-back was handed his debut at 16 by iconic Argentine Daniel Passarella; as great an endorsement as you could wish for. Not strictly played in defence, the young Musacchio was entrusted with anchoring the midfield, testament to both his defensive prowess and ability on the ball - a trait that figures heavily in each acquisition Spurs have made this summer.
At 18, Villarreal recognised his potential and brought Musacchio to the Madrigal, initially with the intention of sending him to the club’s B team in the second tier. However, less than a year later the six-foot tall defender found himself promoted to the senior team, where he has shone ever since. Fast-forward three years and Musacchio had captained the Castellon-based club at the age of 21.
It has been a meteoric rise for the Argentine; a journey that will continue its upward trajectory in the Premier League at White Hart Lane.
It is commonly accepted that Tottenham underwhelmed last season as their €125 million worth of summer signings largely flopped in a season that saw Andre Villas-Boas lose his job before Tim Sherwood’s unremarkable reign saw him also face the sack.
Though goals were hard to come by under the Portuguese coach, Sherwood’s more attacking style meant the one true constant over the campaign was a worryingly porous defence. That concern has been addressed through the signings of Ben Davies, Eric Dier and the imminent arrival of Musacchio - all sensible pieces of business by a transfer committee that took a much more scattergun approach this time last summer.
In Musacchio Spurs are acquiring a defender ideally suited to Pochettino’s style of play. The former Southampton boss urges his teams to press high and aggressively with the intention of funnelling any attacking danger out to the flanks rather than through the middle. Musacchio may not be the tallest defender but his instincts are exemplary and his natural inclination to step out of defence and snuff out danger will suit this ploy.
He is a good reader of the game, quick enough and aggressive in the challenge - ideal when married to Pochettino’s insistence on a high defensive line. Musacchio made 108 interceptions for Villarreal last year (averaging 3.4 per game), a statistic which looks even more favourable when compared to Spurs' defenders last campaign. Vlad Chiriches, who struggled with injury and was in and out of the side, managed 2.48 per game - the best across the squad.
Furthermore his 108 interceptions were the most in La Liga and were only bettered in England by Youssouf Mulumbu, Mile Jedinak and Curtis Davies. However, the first two are midfielders, and Davies spent the majority of his time sweeping up loose balls, a contrast to Musacchio’s style of stepping out of defence and winning ground duels.
However, with question marks surrounding his pace, concerns linger over the defender's ability to recover from balls played in behind - though that risk is reduced somewhat by the lightning quick Hugo Lloris sweeping up.
On the ball, Musacchio also fits into the Pochettino plan, drawing similarities to one of his former Southampton charges, Dejan Lovren. His experience in midfield at River Plate clearly served him well and he developed a composure on the ball all too rarely seen in centre-backs in England.
Importantly, he is direct with his distribution. Morgan Schneiderlin hailed Lovren’s use of the ball, insisting his "ability to break lines with simple passes" entirely changed the way in which Southampton operated.
Where the likes of Michael Dawson and Younes Kaboul are safety-first in possession, there is no hint of such caution in Musacchio’s play. When he gets the ball, his first inclination is often to try to find the forward players - ideal for Pochettino’s belief in fast, counter-attacking transitions.
In short, Musacchio looks a shrewd signing. Tottenham struggled immensely against top five sides when on the back foot and the Argentine should first and foremost bring an authoritative presence. But it is his incisive use of the ball which may be the most surprising and game-changing attribute he will bring with him to north London.