By Seb Stafford-Bloor, The Athletic
Late last Saturday night, two old rivals rattled around in an empty stadium in Brasilia.
Guido Rodriguez scored the only goal of a dull game, as Argentina jabbed their way to a win over Uruguay, continuing their unbeaten start to the Copa America.
Giovani Lo Celso was a casualty. He limped off after just 48 minutes and while his injury is not thought to be serious, it’s badly timed, coming just days after a splendid performance in the opening 1-1 draw with Chile.
That game in Rio de Janeiro saw Lo Celso at his best. The Chileans were admittedly not quite at theirs, but his thrilling mix of drive and craft was much too good for them. He almost created two goals for Lautaro Martinez, he won the free kick from which Lionel Messi scored Argentina’s goal, and in the 68 minutes before being replaced, he played with purpose, poise and imagination — the qualities so often missing from Tottenham Hotspur’s midfield.
Lo Celso at Spurs has been a strange story. Signed by one head coach and then passed on quickly to another, he has produced flashes rather than form and now, two years down the line, is threatening to become another player for the fans to clash over; brilliant to some, injury-prone and erratic to others.
There was, briefly, a consensus. During a run of games towards the end of Jose Mourinho’s 2019-20 debut season, Lo Celso was one of the only true colours in a monochrome side. He had skill and acceleration, but he could also hold that speed, and one of the fonder images of a year best forgotten was his charge down the Turf Moor touchline, beyond and away from a small army of Burnley players, all left shaking their fists.
Mourinho always seemed to be a fan. His own time at Tottenham ended bitterly, but that doesn’t mean that he was always wrong – and he was right in his affection for Lo Celso.
He didn’t take to him immediately and made him fight his way into the side, but once charmed – and whenever available – the Portuguese treated him as key to what he wanted to achieve. Understandably. A quick-breaking player with plenty of skill and who made good decisions on the counter? He was perfect for Mourinho, and Lo Celso was actually one of the few players who was regularly praised during that period. When Tottenham made his loan deal from Real Betis permanent in January 2020, Mourinho was delighted. He said that executing the clause was “an easy decision” and, by last summer, the praise was only growing more effusive.Lo Celso has been asked to play many different roles in his two years at Tottenham (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)
In July, with the COVID-delayed Premier League heading towards its end, Mourinho was asked to compare Lo Celso to Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, a player Spurs had dallied over signing from Sporting Lisbon the year before.
“I don’t know anything about that, but if that is true, and if Giovani Lo Celso was the player that came to Spurs (instead of Fernandes), then I would say I wouldn’t change Giovani Lo Celso for any player.”
Mourinho was being complimentary. It wasn’t a comparison he drew, nor was it one he was encouraging, but it was a telling moment because that apparently binary relationship between Fernandes and Lo Celso ignores how different the two players are. Fernandes is a goalscorer and creator, Lo Celso is a carrier and a distributor. Each have more to their game than that, of course, and there is some overlap, but there are also significant contrasts.
The history of the Argentinian’s data profile is actually very interesting.
In 2017-18, his statistical Ligue 1 contemporaries were players such as Adrien Rabiot and Houssem Aouar. The year after, following his move to Betis, they were Athletic Bilbao dynamo Iker Muniain, Real Madrid’s Isco and his then-team-mate, Sergio Canales. Twelve months later, in the Premier League, his peers were Mateo Kovacic, Youri Tielemans and Tanguy Ndombele.
He’s chameleon-like. At different times, in different competitions, his output has been similar to the outright playmaker he’s often assumed to be, to the more conservative midfielders who nobody would confuse him with, and to the kind of carry-and-cut midfielder that lurks in between the two and which probably best describes him.
It’s part of the Lo Celso riddle. The obvious reason why he hasn’t yet been a success at Tottenham is that he hasn’t been able to stay fit. The second issue, though, is he has never been properly defined within their system or surrounded by the same players for any length of time. Issue one and two are clearly related but there’s definitely a sense that Spurs don’t quite know what they have and that, two years on, Lo Celso’s career in England remains in the experimental stage.
Mourinho mentioned this too. It was intended as flattery at the time, but it unwittingly describes a problem that predated his appointment and has now outlasted him.
“He can play everywhere. Everywhere,” said Mourinho. “He can play No 10, No 8, double midfield player… He can play on the right side, on the left. He can play everywhere.”
He can. All of those positions. Just not all at the same time.
Before Lo Celso arrived at Tottenham, he had a reputation for being adaptable and for contributing in different ways. He’s been a player of many personalities.
At Rosario Central back home, he was a fun and frivolous No 10, very much the ideal of the Argentinian playmaker. After a 2016 move to Paris Saint-Germain, his scarce minutes often saw him in a deeper position, scavenging tenaciously for the ball, but then using it well and with tremendous accuracy. At Betis, a different costume again. He was either part of a midfield three or an attacking midfield two, and he would borrow from his past depending on which it was in a given game. Pushed high, he’d flick, drive, scheme and score. But dropped deep, he’d pressure, pass and snap the ball through the lines and from side to side.
These changes of face describe a very gifted player. The trouble at Spurs, it seems – beyond the injuries – has been the temptation to use him as broadly as possible. In as much of the pitch and in as many of the phases. That’s likely why he often seems so unrestrained, and possibly also why his best moments are so contrasting.
For instance, any highlight reel from his time in England would be dominated by those long, driving runs, but he’s also this player, seen picking Paul Pogba’s pocket against Manchester United.
He’s also this one, shown getting his hands dirty on the edge of his own box away to Newcastle United.
It’s a sequence that starts with him screening his defence and organising the cover, and ends with him tracking Allan Saint-Maximin across the box and sliding in to snatch the ball away.
The instinct is to want to see him in as many advanced positions as possible, closer to the opposition goal where he can do the most damage — the Betis, Rosario version of Lo Celso — but then he’s also a player who can receive a pass from his defence in this position…
…withstand a high press, and then make a turn, run and pass which takes six defenders out of the game and springs his team onto the counter-attack.
Lo Celso’s signing may have been a response to losses further up the pitch and the anticipated departure of Christian Eriksen, but in his own half he can often resemble another Spurs predecessor, Mousa Dembele. He’s not as physically impressive as the Belgian, but his touches in tight spaces and capacity to pirouette away bear more than a passing likeness.
Data is not for everybody. In this instance, however, it’s an excellent way of quantifying not just the range of Lo Celso’s actions, but also the volume and the various contrasts. Over the last year, in all competitions and in comparison to players of similar position, he’s is in the 94th percentile for key passes per 90 minutes (1.77) and the 93rd percentile for shot-creating actions (3.54/90).
That’s an enormously valuable return and typical of a modern No 10. But he’s also averaging 25.13 pressures (96th percentile) and 3.4 tackles (94th percentile) per 90, while producing a non-penalty expected goals-plus-assists rating of 0.34 per 90, in the 94th percentile of a list topped by Kevin De Bruyne (0.78). Opaque as some of those terms are, they make a strong point about Lo Celso’s value and his relative worth in certain areas of the pitch.
Prior to his injury, he was playing as part of a midfield three for Argentina, alongside the aggressive Rodrigo De Paul and the combative Rodriguez. That seems a fairly consistent role, but — to date — Tottenham haven’t shown that they understand quite how to package his abilities. Lo Celso started just 15 games in the Premier League and Europa League last season, and did so in five roles. Those were also appearances in a team without any certainty, within which only four players could ever be sure of selection.
So, Lo Celso has joined Spurs at a time when they are tenuous in concept. Little surprise, then, that his best moments have often been spontaneous and reactionary. Once in a while, he has produced something which is the extension of a tactical plan — the goal against Manchester City last November, for instance — but more often he’s been good in quite a random way. With a run, a tackle and burst; a riff, basically.
The challenge is to formalise that value somehow. To manage it and to allow it to flourish without it seeming like it’s coming at the cost of something else.
That’s why part of the conversation around Spurs is likely wrong. They have some pressing needs — a right-back, a centre-half, a head coach — but they also have some extravagantly talented players who they haven’t made anything like the best use of. When they fill these gaps in their side over the coming weeks, then, it should be with that in mind — with the need to create the right conditions at the forefront.
What kind of right-back would give Lo Celso licence to move up and back in the midfield corridor?
What kind of centre-half would equip him with the type of possession he needs from deep?
If he and Ndombele are to exist in the same midfield three, then what deferential protection is needed further forward? Does the Harry Kane/Son Heung-min axis need to be offset by someone more conservative, who can drop and cover space?
If so, is that a player already at the club, or one who needs to be found outside?
It’s a priority, because a midfield of Ndombele, Lo Celso and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg should be the envy of the league. Injuries have got in the way, as have other issues too, but never has that combination even threatened to be entertaining, let alone as effective as it should clearly be.
It’s a conundrum that needs solving, with Lo Celso and his many abilities so central to it that should really be part of the managerial interview process. Like a Rubik’s Cube left in the waiting room to befuddle the weak candidates, perhaps, or one of those lateral-thinking puzzles found in the back of old magazines.
Solve this and everything else should become a lot easier.