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Does Matt Doherty have a future at Tottenham?

The Ireland international impressed after coming off the bench against Leicester in midweek.

Matt Doherty (file pic).
Matt Doherty (file pic).
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

WHEN MATT Doherty was introduced at the start of the second half on Wednesday night, the game was in the balance.

It was 1-1 between Tottenham and Leicester in what was an important fixture for both sides’ European aspirations.

The Foxes then went ahead through James Maddison in the 76th minute and looked set to prevail, maintaining their lead as the game entered into stoppage time.

An incredible 80 seconds of football followed, and Doherty played a part in the unlikely comeback.

In the dying moments, the Irish international made an intelligent run in behind and was picked up via a superb lofted pass from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg.

Doherty’s goal-bound shot was blocked, but Steven Bergwijn was on hand to convert the rebound for a 95th-minute equaliser.

Almost immediately after Leicester kicked off, a clinical Harry Kane through pass picked out Bergwijn, and the Dutchman showed remarkable composure under the circumstances to round the goalkeeper and slot home for a last-gasp winner.

Spurs had won in highly dramatic circumstances and most observers agreed that Doherty had made a positive impression overall after replacing Emerson Royal at the break.

Yet whether the player has a future at Tottenham remains to be seen.

Nights to remember like Wednesday have been all too rare for the Dubliner.

The 30-year-old has been in and out of the team more or less since joining Spurs from Wolves for a reported fee of around £15 million (€16.7m) just before the start of the 2020-21 campaign. 

The Spurs situation is in stark contrast with his recent international career — no Ireland player has started more games in the Stephen Kenny era, with Doherty featuring in 18 of the manager’s 20 matches in charge.

Looking at it from an Irish perspective, you would be inclined to say Doherty has been somewhat unlucky at Tottenham.

He arrived at one of the most turbulent times in Spurs’ recent history — with three permanent and one caretaker manager overseeing his season and a half in North London.

The fact he grew up an Arsenal fan and his announcement video actually highlighted this fact, as well as some tweets proclaiming his former love for the Gunners, is the type of thing that shouldn’t matter, but likely would not have played well with the more hardcore and less rational element of the Spurs fanbase.

This bad omen seemed to extend to the pitch. Summer signings are usually given a few games to adapt to a club and get comfortable in their new role. Doherty, by contrast, does not really seem to have been afforded that luxury.

In his first two months at Spurs, he started just three Premier League games, with Serge Aurier, who has since left the club, often preferred. Straight away, it seemed, the Irishman was under the cosh.

Picking up Covid on international duty didn’t help, as he lost his place on the North Londoners’ starting XI chiefly as a result of that bit of misfortune, according to Kenny.

Consequently, Doherty ended 2020 with just seven Premier League starts under his belt, in comparison to his 10 seasons at Wolves where he was invariably one of the first names on the team sheet.

The ostensible lack of faith in Doherty from the outset prompts the question as to whether Jose Mourinho wanted the player in the first place, while there has been speculation that the fact the pair share an agent in Jorge Mendes may have influenced the arrangement.

Doherty’s 2021 didn’t get much better — he was sent off in the 90th minute of Spurs’ 3-0 win over Leeds on 2 January and continued to struggle thereafter.

Ultimately, he completed his first season at Tottenham, having started just 13 of their 38 Premier League matches.

Part of the problem was that Mourinho would often play a back four, meaning Doherty had to operate as a right-back if at all. The Portuguese coach did play him in this position on a few occasions, but the results were less-than-successful.

The Irishman had been at his most effective at Wolves in the wing-back role and his strengths are very much in attack — defensively, Spurs tend to view someone like Japhet Tanganga as a more reliable option in a four-man defence.

With former Wolves boss Nuno Espírito Santo taking over in the summer, there was some hope that he may be able to get the best out of Doherty having worked with him closely for a number of years previously.

It proved not to be the case, however. In fact, Doherty played just seven minutes of Premier League football under Espírito Santo, who discarded the 3-5-2 preferred during his Wolves tenure and generally opted for a four-man defence, with Tanganga or £25.8 million summer signing Emerson Royal usually selected.

Nevertheless, Doherty’s fortunes have improved to an extent since Antonio Conte took charge.

Although the Italian does have a reputation for rejuvenating out-of-sorts players, the reason he is getting more game time is not necessarily because he has become a better player or is working harder in training.

The fact that Spurs have primarily reverted to a wing-back system — the formation in which Doherty frequently thrived at Wolves — under Conte is a big reason why he appears to be somewhat in favour again.

That said, it seems Conte is still not entirely convinced of his worth.

Having been out of the picture almost entirely until Nuno’s departure in November, the Ireland international needed to rediscover some match sharpness, so it was always unlikely that he would suddenly become a regular starter.

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Yet from the beginning, there were signs of hope. He played the last 19 minutes of Conte’s first match in charge — a 0-0 draw with Everton — the longest time he had spent on the pitch in a top-flight match since May.

Following the Toffees cameo, Doherty has made three more substitute appearances in the Premier League.

He did start both legs of their important recent League Cup semi-final against Chelsea, though looked uncomfortable filling in as a left wing-back with Sergio Reguilón, who normally occupies that spot, unavailable through injury.

So while Doherty is at least now getting more game time compared with the start of the season, the jury still appears to be out on him from Conte’s perspective.

He will certainly have done himself no harm with Wednesday’s eye-catching display, but news that Conte is trying to sign Adama Traore and convert him into a right wing-back suggests he still has considerable doubts as to whether Doherty is a viable long-term solution in the role.

Yet Doherty should not be written off yet. Conte has a reputation for allowing players to start off with a clean slate and so if Doherty keeps working hard and performing at a high level, there is no reason why he shouldn’t have a future at Spurs.

On the other hand, particularly if the Traore deal does go through, he may be tempted to try his luck elsewhere in an environment where he is more likely to get regular football.

Regardless, it feels like a pivotal moment in Doherty’s career. At 30, he is unlikely to get too many more years at the top level. The decision he makes now could determine whether he enjoys an Indian summer or fades prematurely into obscurity.

On the back of his impressive midweek display, whether or not he is granted a start against Chelsea on Sunday in his preferred position could be a telling indication of what his next move should be.

Upcoming Premier League fixtures (matches kick off at 3pm unless stated otherwise):

Friday

Watford v Norwich (20.00)

Saturday

Everton v Aston Villa (12.30)
Brentford v Wolves
Leeds v Newcastle
Man United v West Ham
Southampton v Man City (17.30)

Sunday

Arsenal v Burnley (14.00)
Crystal Palace v Liverpool (14.00)
Leicester City v Brighton (14.00)
Chelsea v Tottenham (16.30)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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