At the start of last season Spurs were on the brink of a Champions League campaign that everyone was looking forward to. This season Spurs are on the brink of a Europa League campaign that no one seems that bothered about. Well I say no one, I don’t mean that. There are enough Spurs fans who still believe in the glory of the game and winning trophies being more important than finishing fourth in the Premier League. That’s my minor grumble out of the way – let’s move on to the season ahead and in particular one player who can have a massive impact on Spurs chances.
Every Spurs preview is going to seem much the same as last season’s in terms of personnel, tactics, which players need to go and how a powerful, skilful 20 goal a season striker is the main requirement. Most people will mention our goalkeeping situation being up in the air; the majority will say our defence will feature Corluka, Dawson and Assou-Ekotto almost certainly and that Walker will threaten Charlie and Kaboul is probably in pole-position to start alongside Captain Awesome. Modric staying will be hailed as vital, Sandro’s injury a blow. Consensus will have it that Bale is key to any success and that Lennon must really deliver this year. Many will agonise over and debate whether the same misfiring strikers from last year can be quite as bad again.
Another huge talking point will be one of the players who did join on the back of our Champions League status. Rafael van der Vaart was a surprise last minute gift for Harry Redknapp from chairman Daniel Levy. Top class attacking midfielders don’t land in your lap every day, especially for only £8m. That Spurs really quite badly needed that aforementioned striker seemed to have passed Levy by and was in fact exacerbated by Rafa’s arrival. Van der Vaart’s most effective position is playing between the lines of midfield and attack, using his excellent passing and vision to set up others for chances as well as provide a good number of trademark left foot 20 yard drives and cute finishes mopping up in the box.
At the start of the season, as much due to Jermain Defoe’s injury as anything else, van der Vaart and Peter Crouch were thrust together as an unlikely partnership. This combination initially bore fruit as Rafa hit the ground running, his skill on the ball and end product in goals and assists somehow softened the blow of seeing diagonal balls lumped at Crouch on the back post time after time. That said it’s really not the Spurs way and besides, that ploy doesn’t work with any of the other strikers on the books. After Christmas and with no regular partner along with a fitness struggle, van der Vaart’s form dropped off from the sublime level he had reached early on. It can’t have helped that he was played out wide right at times, something he isn’t comfortable doing and that leaves the team exposed on that flank. It also appeared that he was always being rushed back into action from the various knocks and niggles he picked up. As the side hit a poor run of form, van der Vaart cut a frustrated figure lacking supply and dropping deeper and deeper seeking to get involved, this led to a further breakdown between midfield and attack as no one was pushing on beyond him.
For me as much as Modric and Bale will be crucial in Spurs performing well, Rafa van der Vaart should also contribute in a big way to any success they have. His skill on the ball, eye for a pass and a goal allied with his dead ball ability – who was the last Spurs player to score as many penalties as the Dutchman did in his first season? – means he is a game winner on his own merits. He really enjoys playing for Spurs, you can see it in his face and in the effort he puts in. This does sometimes spill over into him collecting too many cards, but you’ve got to admire the desire.
If however, Redknapp plays a 4-4-2, which on the evidence of Saturday’s friendly against Bilbao is likely, there should be no place for one of our best players. Playing him wide isn’t an option as he’s likely to drift – offensively that’s fine, he gets into good positions and causes havoc in opposition defences –but when moves break down he has usually left a gaping hole and an overloaded full back, and lacking the pace of a Bale or Lennon he’s unable to make up for this. He isn’t comfortable or effective playing a traditional central midfielders role. Or is he? Holland coach Bert van Marwijk has recently experimented with Rafa in a more defensive midfield role. He is intelligent and reads the game well, being an interceptor more than a tackler and his passing range is more than good enough for the role. Despite his knockers he also has the work rate to succeed, although it does seem a criminal waste of his attacking talents.
I’m optimistic enough to hope Spurs can find the striker to play with Rafa in his preferred role, which is where he will shine and make the biggest difference to Spurs chances of success this season. He could be the crucial difference in fact.
Predicted finish: 6th