Sunday, 3 October 2010

2010/11 Premiership Year: some Essaying, some Crude Predictions (Vol. IV. Tottenham Hotspur)

When the aircraft carrying Rafael van der Vaart touched down on September 2nd in the year 2010, it did so in a country where the advanced playmaker (or midfield-striker) role could never be the same again. Arjen Robben disapproved publically of the transfer: van der Vaart could have moved to yet another sovereign club in European football, Bayern Munich, having previously worn the colours of Ajax and Real Madrid. Robben went on to say that his Dutch teammate is as fine a player as Lampard, Gerrard or Fabregas, and that there is now no gap between Spurs and Arsenal. Don't think he wasn't being sincere. Perhaps a maturing Arsenal was the wrong choice of club; United or City would have made for more reasonable comparisons on paper. Perhaps he should have left it at Gerrard and Lampard and not mentioned Cesc Fabregas. What is important is that these are not flippant comments made by a braggart who had lost his marbles at Soccer City (where, almost two months before, Iker Casillas had denied the winger everlasting fame). On that July evening, as the best moment in Andres Iniesta's life happened, van der Vaart was wearing the captain's armband of a nation tortured by World Cup Final defeats, but blessed by some of the greatest attacking footballers the world has ever seen: Johans Cruyff and Neeskens, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Kiki Musampa, Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder.

Having suffered a brief spell clothing Darren Bent, the Tottenham Hotspur no.10 shirt has returned to the dressing room peg of Robbie Keane, talent-asphyxiated though he may be. Despite this outrage, there are now three Lilywhites who, according at least to book-writer Richard Williams's demands in his prescious history, Perfect 10, could pass oaths unto those same sacred digits at the very highest level. If Bert Bliss, Les Allen, Jimmy Greaves, Hoddle, Gascoigne and Sheringham could recite every blade of White Hart Lane grass like lighthouse keepers blessed with ball skills, so now can 6. Tom Huddlestone, 14. Luka Modric (Jonathan Wilson's definition of "the modern playmaker" in world football) and already the new Dutch signing who wears 11. Warming the bench is another capable Croat, Niko Kranjcar. These playmakers are determined to establish Tottenham Hotspur as an elite club in the new decade, and not just for themselves, but because they evidently enjoy playing to the mores of The Glory Game. It might, at last, be worth Hunter Davies writing a sequel.

There is, as of now, no ostensibly world class riposte to Rooney, Drogba or Fabregas on the Tottenham squad list. Gomes, King and Gallas at their fittest and best might dispute this. So might Hollywood left winger Gareth Bale and his three poetic playmakers. Realistically however, Spurs are unable to challenge seriously for the most prestigous prizes. There are also two flaws that could stop them from maintaining their place in the top four: Redknapp is striker-lite and tactically obtuse in both 'big' and 'small' fixtures. Neither Defoe nor Crouch - Arry's Pompey lads - has ever claimed an England shirt as his own; that of a boring and frivolous major tournament team. Their partnership is primitive, big man / small man stuff, hardworking and unpleasant for ordinary defenders but unlikely to intimidate managers who boast Rooney, Drogba, Torres, Tevez and Van Persie. One up top will suit the wanderer, van der Vaart. It is an increasingly important tactical assumption, especially away from home and in Europe. Earlier this year though, Pavlyuchenko and Defoe intelligently moved Chelsea and Arsenal into defeat within the space of four days to guide Tottenham into the Champions League. They showed that, as mobile and skilled distractions in the final third, 4-4-2 can still threaten the titans of the game, whether coming up against a 4-3-2-1 or a 4-2-3-1.

However we now know there is nothing the Russian can do to atone for, well, whatever it is he had done wrong. Focused and upbeat every warm up, a fan's favourite in every stand, a proven goalscorer when it matters. In all competitions, he has scored for Spurs at a rate of 0.40 goals per game, Defoe at 0.40, Crouch at 0.35. And unlike his peers, Pavlyuchenko has had to get used to the speed of the Premiership, too often starved of opportunities. His most crucial goals include the first in Reknapp's tenure against Bolton, dragging Spurs away from the relegation mire in October 2008; there after arbitrarily ostracised, coming on to net twice against Wigan at the DW last season. He has scored the two most significant (rescue) goals of the 2010/11 campaign so far; a spectacular strike in Switzerland against Young Boys and, after losing at home againt Wigan, the delicate goal against Wolves that ensured Spurs their first league win of the season at White Hart Lane. His omission when there is no superior striker at the club - especially when Defoe is injured - can not be explained in footballing terms. Recruitment nightmares Rebrov, Postiga and Rasiak are distant memories. Perhaps it is too much to ask for the amelioration of the current caliber (Europa League / top half of the Premiership table) of strikers. Prioritising Pavlyuchenko every week is something Redknapp can do.

A more devastating truth about Harry Redknapp the tactician reveals itself to the football reader. It was Assou Ekotto's absence during the African Cup of Nations which forced Redknapp to play Bale. Then when Bale had impressed and Assou Ekotto had returned, Redknapp was had no other choice but to play Modric in his best position (central) and Bale filled in the gap at left midfield. Later still it was Palacios's suspension that allowed Huddlestone to establish a partnership with Luka Modric. Tottenham fans have benefited from an unwatched soap opera of tactical accidents: this does not happen at every club. And so shame on those who defend the boss for saying to the giggling media "What could I have done? That sort of thing happens every weekend on Hackney Marshes", or that a manager "in the Conference could do my job" or that football is "90% players, 10% tactics", or for transforming Tottenham's Sky Sports page into a permanent advert for his family. Which isn't just to say, "I didn't see it", but to go further and disagree, like some hyperventilating creationist, with empirical - video - evidence. 

Sylvie van der Vaart has all her aesthetic convincing still to do: when Rafael spins and finds an immaculate pass (into space, not to feet), or tests the brawn of gloves and goal nets, his artistry is more beautiful than any photogenic model. Closer to Penelope and Odysseus than Posh and Becks, the van der Vaarts are radiant symbols of Tottenham Hostpur Football Club's culture; about which Maradonna once described, "it's like playing at home." In my lifetime of Klinsmann, Ginola, Berbatov and van der Vaart, a trip down memory lane proffers, to varying degrees of consistency and grace, the surviving truth and beauty of the game. The associated failures are so nineties: a teamsheet televised in Champions League font, soundtracked by Handel - "Die Meister / Die Besten / Les grandes Équipes / The Champions!" - is entertaining reward for attacking football and clever business strategy.

Predicted finish: 3rd, though if you like, you can dismiss this blogger's integrity by skimming over Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion or simply by reading the web address above. I call it reasoned wish-thinking: Spurs are a tactician and a world class striker short, but will climb above United and remain in the way of City - both rivals have realistic European glory to fly to later in the season, and their best players are either retiring, injured, off-form or do not know one another

Best signing: Rafael van der Vaart. I won't say Gallas

You Tubed / Football Manager wonderkid: Football Manager has been charitable to Spurs over the years. South African alcoholic Mbuelo Mabizela became the Thuram of the noughties. Tomas Pekhart, the Czech Alan Shearer. This year, be sure to follow Dean Parret and John Bostock on loan, who really are promising midfield teenagers

Flop: Robbie Keane, whose four goals at home against Burnley last season should not have justified retaining his services. Expect a lot of whinging (and diving)

Player of the Season: Tom Huddlestone who - by his continued absence from England squads - has become a symbol of everything wrong with the national football team. At sixteen, the pass master completed nine GCSEs (six at B, three at C) while playing for Derby County. He is now an established first team player and sometimes captain of a Champions League outfit. His style has been likened by various pundits to Beckenbauer, Hoddle and Xabi Alonso. Huddlestone is into football, not kick-and-rush; clipping, not hoofing; humbling, not whoring

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