Monday night’s defeat to Chelsea wasn’t the first time Cristian Romero had let his team down, and it probably won’t be the last. So, we ask whether Spurs are right to stick by him.
From Tottenham’s perspective, the most infuriating aspect of Cristian Romero’s red card against Chelsea was how predictable it was.
Romero is often praised for his aggressive, front-footed approach; for always being on “the edge” and for playing – most of the time – just about within the absolute limits of the game’s laws.
But this is also usually caveated with the fact that he has the propensity to take things too far; to do something stupid and rash; to cost his team dear.
This season was supposed to be different, though. Having been handed the joint vice-captaincy by Ange Postecoglou this summer, as part of the incoming manager’s all-new leadership group alongside captain Son Heung-min and James Maddison, there was talk of a more mature Romero taking his extra responsibility very seriously.
Four games into the season, Romero was yet to commit a single foul – supposedly a sign that a player who had endured a frustrating 2022-23 on the domestic front had finally grown up. He had ended the previous campaign poorly on a personal level, with his 15 fouls and four yellow cards in his final eight appearances indicating just where his head was at with Spurs’ season petering out disappointingly.
It then took until the sixth game of this season for him to pick up a booking, and even that only came in the fiery atmosphere of a north London derby – one of very few occasions when it is deemed more acceptable to pick up bookings. Fans even get a bit of enjoyment out of petulance or a bit of gamesmanship on derby day. It’s all a bit of fun, isn’t it? As long as you don’t get sent off.
This is the thing with Romero. It never – even in that run of four games without conceding a free-kick – feels like he is too far away from hitting the self-destruct button. Trouble follows him wherever he goes.
In the first half of Tottenham’s third game of the season, he flew into what could have been a very dangerous tackle on Bournemouth’s Antoine Semenyo as he dribbled, fairly innocuously, across the edge of the penalty area. Romero jumped in, two feet in the air and managed to get the ball but very much got the man as well.
Referee Tim Robinson saw nothing wrong with it and Spurs raced up the other end and nearly scored a second goal. Looking back at that challenge, you can see why Robinson waved play on. Romero could hide behind the fact that he got a foot on the ball – which in this case is probably enough of a defence. But you could also understand Bournemouth’s ire that no free-kick was given or if Semenyo was aggrieved that ‘scissor’ challenges like that were being allowed.
Eventually, Romero’s luck ran out, and the fouls and the bookings crept back into his game, in some sense rendering that brief spell without a foul conceded meaningless. He is still, despite his new position of responsibility in the squad, very much the same old player.
Monday night’s crazy game against Chelsea was a case in point. Romero could not resist the lure of a derby-day battle in front of a packed home stadium.
Twenty minutes into a game that Spurs had started superbly, and already 1-0 up, he went charging up the pitch after characteristically – here’s that front-footed approach again – stepping out of defence with purpose to win a header in midfield.
He then chased his own header as it went to Thiago Silva and followed his backpass – not without a nudge on the Brazilian as he went past him – all the way to Robert Sánchez in goal. Roared on by 60-odd thousand adoring Spurs fans, loving that their centre-back wanted to win so much that he was running the length of the pitch to press the opposition’s goalkeeper, Romero was buoyed.
But rather than just jog back into position, Romero couldn’t let it go. Just seconds later, after Silva got payback with a strong – and legal – shoulder-to-shoulder challenge on Romero, the Spurs centre-back, on the floor in the Chelsea half as they launched an attack, kicked out at Levi Colwill. Colwill hadn’t done anything to Romero; he was simply the nearest opponent at the time.
Then, in the very same phase of play, with Romero lying on the turf, Raheem Sterling raced into the precise space that Romero should have been defending, in behind right-back Pedro Porro, to score.
But as has so often been the case for Romero, he got away with it. The VAR decided there wasn’t enough in his kick-out at Colwill to deserve a red, and Sterling’s goal was chalked off for a handball.
Romero wasn’t done there, though, and in the 28th minute, he flew into a reckless and really quite dangerous challenge on international teammate Enzo Fernández inside his own penalty area. There was no escaping punishment this time, and Romero received his marching orders. Chelsea scored the penalty and Spurs imploded. Unbeaten run over.
It’s not the first time Romero has let his team down. And it’s not the first time his actions have cost his team, either.
Since his Tottenham debut in August 2021, he has picked up more red cards in all competitions than any other Premier League player (four). He has also now given away four penalties, too, a total only three players can top, with Craig Dawson, Lewis Dunk and Wilfred Ndidi conceding five each.
His red card against AC Milan in the Champions League round of 16 last season left Spurs – a goal down on aggregate and chasing a way back into the tie – without a chance of making it through. His sending off a few weeks earlier against Manchester City was late enough that his team could hold out for a victory, but with him suspended for their next match, Tottenham were torn apart by eventually relegated Leicester City, losing 4-1 in embarrassing fashion.
Spurs have lost two, drawn one and won one of the four games in which he has given away a penalty. The victory came at City, in a game when Spurs were 2-1 up when Romero conceded a penalty which was scored by Riyad Mahrez, only for Harry Kane to win it in the 95th minute.
A problem with these numbers is that they don’t include the incidents Romero got away with, such as the kick on Colwill on Monday. There was also the mindless hair pull on Marc Cucurella at Stamford Bridge in the opening game of last season, an act it still beggars belief he got away with.
Romero’s displays this season have seen his importance to the team grow and grow. He and Micky van de Ven have teamed up at centre-back to form one of the Premier League’s best and most exciting defensive partnerships. Combining pace, aggression and technical ability, they have been a huge part of the reason Tottenham had started life under Postecoglou so well. Romero, having attempted (811) and completed (748) more passes than any other Spurs player, has been integral to the smooth transition to a possession-based game under the Australian. He is a natural bringing the ball out of defence.
But everyone knew Spurs lacked depth in that position. The drop-off in quality if either Romero or Van de Ven were missing is stark. Eric Dier – next in line at centre-back – had yet to play a single minute this season before he was required on Monday night, which gives an indication as to just how much Postecoglou was relying on his first-choice pair.
It meant Spurs’ manager was just one injury away from a situation he was doing everything to avoid. Van de Ven hobbled off with a serious-looking hamstring injury against Chelsea, so Spurs could really do without Romero also being absent. The Argentine will miss games against Wolves, Aston Villa and Manchester City, while there is still no timeline on Van de Ven’s return, though it’s hard to see him playing again this year.
Spurs fans would have been confident about getting a result in at least two of those next three games that Romero will now miss, but with a makeshift defence, Wolves and Villa will sense an opportunity. Wolves have recently taken points off Newcastle and City, while Villa are more than capable of causing Tottenham some problems, especially with Romero and Van de Ven out. You only have to look at how Liverpool struggled in 2020-21 to see how debilitating a centre-back crisis can be to a high-quality side.
So, do Tottenham need someone at the back who they can rely on a little more? His performances this season would have led to comparisons with the Premier League’s best central defenders. If Spurs are to challenge for honours, they need centre-backs to rival Virgil van Dijk, William Saliba and Rúben Dias in quality.
But Romero is still a way off those three, particularly in terms of their reliability or discipline. While Romero has four red cards in 75 appearances in all competitions for Tottenham, Van Dijk, Saliba and Dias have just one between them in a combined 258 appearances for Liverpool, Arsenal and Man City, respectively, in the same time frame.
Romero is averaging a yellow card every 3.3 games, while Dias gets one every eight games, Saliba every 10.1 games and Van Dijk every 11.2 games. It’s no coincidence that those three defenders will rarely choose to go to ground with a last-ditch tackle. Romero, meanwhile, gleefully grabs every opportunity to slide in.
Spurs came into this season knowing that further reinforcements were needed at centre-back, and the current crisis has only deepened that need. But there is an argument now that any signings need to be made with a view to pushing Romero for a starting spot. He clearly still needs to learn to keep his emotions in check, and it could be that the pressure of knowing there is a player on the bench who will take his place if he lets his team down again could be the answer.
Or, he may simply be unable to change, and it will only be a matter of time before he does something costly again.
If Spurs get another option in the squad who Postecoglou is happy to bring into the team, Romero could eventually run out of chances.