Tottenham Hotspur pulled off an inspirational win this weekend, coming from two goals down to send Southampton home scratching their heads. The win keeps them in fifth, which is quite an achievement when one considers the club’s goal difference. But don’t let the table fool you; Spurs are in turmoil and not just with regards to management.
The team has struggled to create an attacking identity and have been lacking offensive leadership for a couple of years, ever since the departure of Rafael van der Vaart. While Van der Vaart may not be the first former player who comes to mind when thinking of the causes behind Tottenham’s regression, the Dutchman is the one man who, up to this point, Daniel Levy has never sufficiently replaced.
Now, of course Tottenham desperately miss Gareth Bale. Any club, even the biggest of clubs, would find life difficult after the departure of €100 million player. But Tottenham’s best form in the Daniel Levy era was not last season, when Bale was single-handedly winning games. The Welshman pulled his team out of more than one fire, but Van der Vaart was the one who orchestrated fires for the opponents. Spurs were not at their best when Bale was a central playmaker but, instead, when he was the left flank of an incisive and exciting attack led by a certain Dutch maestro.
During the club’s best recent run, the 2010-11 season, Van der Vaart was the man who conducted the attack and would lead from the point. Like the current Spurs squad, many of Tottenham’s attacking players were very young, with Lennon and Bale on the flanks joined by a 25-year old Luka Modric in the midfield along with more youthful players such as Sandro or Tom Huddlestone. That squad was packed full of talent, but like all talented young teams, they needed a leader, and not just a vocal leader urging a tackle. They needed a leader of the attack, a real general. And that leader was Van der Vaart. When moving forward, which that Spurs team did with a vicious energy, it was Van der Vaart who gave them drive and direction, leading the club in goals and assists. He may have attracted criticism for his defensive failings, but no one could deny the overwhelming attacking influence his play had on his teammates.
Let me also make clear what I mean by “leadership.” Van der Vaart was certainly not a captain-style personality, at least not in the traditional sense. When we think of team captains in major European soccer, we most often think of players like Roy Keane or Gennaro Gattuso — blood and thunder drill sergeants shouting commands to their troops and demanding full devotion to the cause. This certainly was not Van der Vaart. But a soccer pitch is a big place, and the game a complex one. There is always more than one leader on the field, and this impassioned Dutchman knew how to make others around him succeed when on the attack, a trait absolutely necessary for a leader in nearly any team sport.
Since Van der Vaart’s return to the Bundesliga, Tottenham has struggled to produce a comprehensive attack. When news came of his departure, many a Spurs supporter did not take to the “well he didn’t track back enough” view used to soften the blow. Van der Vaart was a fulcrum, and one the club would find a very hard time replacing.
During this weekend’s terrific comeback victory over Southampton, White Hart Lane may have seen the arrival of the next Rafael van der Vaart, as Christian Eriksen put in perhaps his best match in the Spurs’ Lilywhites. He was responsible for two goals to bring his team back into a game that looked lost, and with a deft setup for the winner, was the kind of performance Spurs fans have been waiting for, and one — for people familiar with Eriksen’s talent —have been expecting.
In order for Tottenham to recapture the potential they showed in the 2010-11 season, Tim Sherwood, or whoever becomes the next manager, will need Eriksen to be the kind of offensive leader Spurs once had in Rafael van der Vaart.
The club has amassed a stable of great young talent, but they will need an offensive leader, and that’s what they have been missing these last two seasons.