This past week in football taught the world that Harry Redknapp is a football manager first and a ‘wheeler dealer’ last. If you missed his verbal tirade on the poor Sky Sports reporter who so mistakenly uttered the phrase in Redknapp’s direction, you’d have also missed Tottenahm’s securing of Dutch playmaker Rafael van der Vaart as the transfer deadline so quickly approached – both were major news items during a not so exciting week.
The question that Redknapp now faces is just where to play van der Vaart in a Spurs side currently not bereft of midfielders. Redknapp will first want to assess (and surely already knows or he wouldn’t have bought him) just where van der Vaart’s strengths will best be used for Spurs. In the middle of the pitch as a central playmaker is where van der Vaart is most comfortable, but the former Real Madrid man can also operate in wider positions as he did for Holland in the 2010 World Cup deputizing for Arjen Robben on the left side of midfield.
Because he’s not an out and out winger (see under Holland’s 2-0 defeat of Denmark in the World Cup or their 1-0 victory over Japan), van der Vaart when started wide will tend to drift into the center of the field looking for space which destroys the idea of any width through attack. This natural drifting causes van der Vaart to essentially occupy the same space as Luke Modric would in attack for Spurs or Wesley Sneijder for Holland.
The point in this positional comparison is to prove that van der Vaart is best when played centrally. In a forward attacking role, van der Vaart has the space he needs to create for others around him, pick out a killer ball or shoot on goal. He’s an exceptional passer of the ball and is a gifted technical footballer in the vein of many of his Dutch predecessors. So what does this all mean for Tottenham?
Rafael van der Vaart’s recent inclusion means Harry Redknapp has a decision to make. Maybe not as tough of a decision as I’m thinking because of Tottenham’s added Champions League fixtures, but Redknapp must first decide who his best starting eleven are then decide who he’ll play (and how he’ll set them up) in Champions League matches while keeping players fresh for other competitions. Because van der Vaart and Luka Modric aren’t entirely different, it would be unwise to start both of them in central midfield at the same time.
Yanking Gareth Bale from the left side of midfield to allow Modric the left (thus giving VDV control) would be folly, while picking Modric over either one of the more defensively minded Wilson Palacios or Tom Huddlestone to allow van der Vaart and Modric the middle could leave Spurs’ back four exposed without a holding player should they match up with a quicker more counter attacking team in Europe or the Premier League.
Many might suggest moving Bale back to left back allowing Modric the left side of midfield role while van der Vaart and Huddlestone occupy the middle with Aaron Lennon sprinting up and down the right wing. I disagree. Moving the scintillating Bale further away from goal limits his brilliant attacking qualities while Modric, not a left winger by trade either, laments on the flank and possibly (naturally) drifts center where his qualities are better displayed just as van der Vaart did for Holland during the World Cup.
Realistically, at least in league play, Redknapp may have to elect to drop Modric in favor of van der Vaart, or vice versa.
This midfield selection headache leaves Tottenahm with a minor problem – a lot of talent with only four or five spots in midfield. Depending on Redknapp’s selection, whether he wants one or two strikers up front will of course go a long way in deciding how many midfielders he can start.
In the Premier League thus far, Redknapp has elected to field two strikers up front with four in midfield – a classic 4-4-2. In Tottenham’s Champions League playoff v Young Boys, Redknapp also elected fielding two strikers up front, but could elect a five-man midfield when group stage play begins which would allow a more conservative 4-5-1 or something close to a 4-2-3-1. Either one of those formations could see a myriad of midfield combinations employed to secure a successful group stage outing.
Regardless of what Redknapp decides, his problem is a good one. Rafael van der Vaart is a quality player who won’t turn 28 til 2011. He’s in the prime of his career and Tottenham will experience more matches this year than they have in years past. I look for van der Vaart to thrive for Spurs as long as he’s played in position and not stuck on the wing. After all, Harry Redknapp is a proper football manager, just don’t call him a wheeler dealer.