Rafael van der Vaart was an inspiring signing by Daniel Levy and Harry Redknapp two summers ago. Bought for a mere £8 million from Real Madrid, he immediately made an impact in a new league. Typically one expects a foreign import to take three months to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League, but van der Vaart needed no such adjustment and by that October was named the Barclay’s Player of the Month. He made an even quicker impact for Spurs in the Champions League, where his experience was instrumental for a novice UCL side. He provided a goal and an assist in their first two group matches ever, securing four points that would help them win a solid group that included the holders Inter, Werder Bremen and FC Twente. By January he had scored 10 goals and provided 5 assists in the league and Europe. By the end of the season, he had scored a quarter of Spurs league goals (13), had a total of 15, added 9 assists and played 28 league games and 7 Champions League matches. This season, he has 2 goals in 5 matches. But most important to many supporters, he has scored four times in three matches against Arsenal.
He has been a very positive signing for Tottenham both on the pitch and off. Already the most public face of Tottenham, he arrived as a celebrity player of the likes Spurs hadn’t signed since David Ginola. He has been a pervasive voice for the club in the press, with whom he has a great relationship based on his gregariousness. With a super-model wife, who bucks the trend of trashy WAG’s, he has given the club a very cosmopolitan feel.
So what could be wrong?
The issue is not the talent or ability. Both are there in abundance for the Dutchman. But there is an issue, which comes down, as it always does, to the system. Most people don’t realize that Tottenham are built to be almost indistinguishable from the Sevilla side of Juande Ramos, which won consecutive UEFA Cups. This was a system that Damien Comolli started to implement long before the embarrassing tapping up of the eventual Tottenham manager. It is based on a deep lying double pivot (hence my moniker), utilizing pace on the wings and athletic backs in a 4-4-2 with a target man and poacher. It’s best when hitting off transition from the defensive half, so that while it can dominate possession, most of its goals come when the other team is stretched.
It just so happens that Ramos’ successor Harry Redknapp is a 4-4-2 style manager and hasn’t seen a need to change the system. In fact, Redknapp has tinkered with the system to get it more like the old Sevilla. Seeing as he had no Daniel Alves style wing-back, he has tried to oust Verdan Corluka with Pascal Chimbonda, Younes Kaboul and Alan Hutton. The more defense minded Croatian has beaten off all completion due to his well crafted partnership with Aaron Lennon. But the arrival of Kyle Walker, who does possess Alves’ ability to get forward as well as mature decision making in defense, may finally be the bombing RB that the system needs. In addition, he moved Luka Modric from the left to a central position to play the role that Maresca did for Sevilla. This left room for the reintroduction of Bale as the pacy left winger the system required. Not having the hard tackling DM of the likes of Poulsen or the tactical defender in Marti, he has sought to fix this by purchasing both Sandro and Scott Parker in successive summers. And realizing that Crouch couldn’t quite replicate the linking role of Kanoute, he brought in Emmanuel Adebayor.
This is a system that Ramos perfected at Sevilla, Comolli tried to buy for while Spurs DoF and that Harry Redknapp has done a better job of replicating then Ramos could while managing the club. It’s a system that works. And when it works, it’s a very entertaining brand of football. It was exciting at Sevilla. It was spectacular two seasons ago, when Spurs piped Liverpool for 4th place. Using Crouch and Defoe as a big-man, small-man pairing it provided a lot of goals from forwards as the speedy Lennon and Bale provided the impetus out wide.
Last year, the system was forced to change. An early season injury to Defoe and the purchase of van der Vaart left Harry without a recognizable 4-4-2. So he improvised and shifted van der Vaart into a false 9 position. But, in reality, the” false” terminology isn’t exactly correct. Van der Vaart played more like an Aussie Rules ruck-rover off of Crouch in the final third. It was a quite unique pairing. And it worked, especially early in the campaign, because defenses didn’t know how to deal with it. As they learned, the pairing lost its proficiency. It became referred to as a 4-4-1-1, which meant it remained a pretty close relative to the system that had brought success to Spurs. But it lacked the flair it once possessed in the league. In Europe it looked like the Mongol Hordes, but in England, the club lost its goal scoring touch. Tottenham never won a game by more than a goal in the league last campaign and scored 12 less than the previous year. And whereas the system had resulted in a forward heavy distribution of goals in 2009-10 (38 of 67), it was the midfield that provided the bulk of the scoring in 2010-11 (31 of 55).
And herein lies the problem. When fit, Rafael van der Vaart will start, or at least he expects to. But he has no place in this Sevilla 4-4-2. He’s not a deep lying CM, a pacy winger or a forward. He’s built for a diamond formation, like at Hamburg SV, or a 4-3-3, like at Ajax. So when he was injured, Adebayor and Defoe formed a partnership that showed itself as a better fit for the system deployed at White Hart Lane. When he returned against Wigan, once again as a ruck-rover, the system was stagnant and the team won by a goal. Last weekend, against Arsenal, Harry experimented with pushing him onto the right with Lennon being injured. Yes, he scored, but he was such a glaring weakness that he had to be pulled for Sandro, so Modric could move to the right in order to keep shape. Van der Vaart kept drifting infield and left Walker exposed and created a 4-3-3 by his unwillingness to play defense. Arsenal’s goal was heavily attributed to the Dutchman’s poor effort to close down Song.
And so we begin this international break with a potential rift in the team. Van der Vaart doesn’t want to play on the right (not that he did) and wants to be played in his proper position. His good relationship with the press will now work against the club, as they are quite willing to listen to such gripes. Much like they were quick to use his complaints about not being put on the Europa League squad: a decision Harry made to save him from the wear and tear of the group stages of that competition.
But the club can’t play him in his natural position without causing issues to the system. Sure Harry could play a diamond, but that means one or two of Sandro, Modric and Parker are now on the bench. The squad lacks the pieces for a 4-3-3. A 4-2-3-1 could be used, but then the wings would be under-exploited, which is a massive strength when Lennon and Bale are healthy. This means that in order to accommodate van der Vaart, the club must revert to a 4-4-1-1; which has become easy to negate over the last year.
So there is trouble brewing at Tottenham. With Lennon almost on the mend, Harry may have to anger one of his prized assets by sitting van der Vaart for the effectiveness of the team; however if he does so, the player will not take it lightly and will most likely use the press in much the same way Harry does, causing internal strife to a club that just settled down after this summer’s Modric saga.