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Harry Redknapp's Rafael van der Vaart Dilemma: Where Will the Dutch Midfielder Fit In?

Rafael Van Der Vaart of Holland looks dejected following the FIFA World Cup Final match at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 11, 2010. Spain defeated Holland 1-0. UPI/Chris Brunskill Photo via Newscom

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.

Other Options

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.

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  1. Pedro

    September 4, 2010 at 7:22 am

    Best available starting lineup (4-2-3-1) on current form:

    Kaboul-King-Dawson-Assou Ekotto
    van der Vaart-Modric-Bale

    This is assuming that Dawson isn’t crocked, that Sandro turns out to be the player that he looks like in the few clips that I’ve seen, and VdV shows the undoubted class that he has in the past for Hamburg and in his infrequent appearances for Real. I hate to say it but Lennon hasn’t looked the same player since his injury. He had a good game against Stoke but other than that I don’t think he deserves a starting spot. I think Harry’s longtime courting of Ashley Young could be down to his doubts over Lennon’s fitness.

    I’ve gone for Kaboul ahead of Corluka because Charlie is just too slow and Kaboul offers more going forward. The centre forward position is a difficult choice.

    I’ve gone for Crouch as he’s been our best CF this season and played well as a lone frontman against Stoke although I think he lacks the pace and strength to play this position long term at the very top level and if he’s up there we have to avoid the temptation of hitting it long. Any one of our four strikers could play there although all in different ways. Keane, if he is on form, is possibly the best suited to this position as he’s our most intelligent striker and can interchange with the midfield and the movement to exploit space. With him . Defoe on his day can be devastating, but too rarely and his all round play isn’t good enough. Pav I think is our most natural goalscorer but can look disinterested and can frustrate. It is imperative, however, that whoever plays there gets sufficient support from the three behind.

  2. Lars

    September 4, 2010 at 1:05 am

    I am sure ‘Arry would much rather have this dilemma than having too few midfielders.

    On paper, the Spurs midfield and attack looks very capable and talented. Why Harry didn’t buy a central-back instead of Sandro/VdV is troubling considering that they have the extra load of the strenuous Champions League…

    • mw828

      September 4, 2010 at 2:27 am

      I’m not sure why people are talking so much about not adding a CB now. First off, harry got gallas on a free. would it have been better to buy some nobody crap player for 1m? cuz at least that way he would have “bought” a CB. I’m not sure how many CB’s people think a team should have. Their CB depth is pretty good.
      all natural CB’s with players like walker, corluka, and huddlestone that could deputise at CB if needed. for the time being spurs will have 3.5 real CB’s with ledley only counting for a half.

  3. RobDee

    September 3, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Corluka King Gallas Assou Ekotto
    Hudd modric
    Lennon VDV Bale
    Huddlestone and Modric played as a two against Arsenal, Chelsea, and City at the end of last season so i see no reason to change it as they were excellent and we won all three games. Wilson and Sandro will figure but for me this is a strong team. The left back worries me a bit at the moment but he had a great season last year so and hopefully he can get back to that. VDV will link the play with Defoe who looks to be really strong this year and is also making really good diagonal runs at pace. COYS!!

  4. James

    September 3, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    This is a good topic of debate but certainly not a problem for a top flight manager especially one of the caliber of Harry Redknapp. There are four competitions for Spurs this season (about 50 fixtures) and depth is a must in order for them to take the club to the next level. Injuries will occur, players will get on/off form, as well as bookings/suspensions and such. With all this said, my Citizens of Manchester will take 4th place this year!

  5. SpursInTheUSA

    September 3, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    This is how I see our most ideal lineup, at least for Europe games (Prepare to call me crazy).



    I think with this formation, you basically tell Bale to play in more of a wing back than full back role, and tell him to just bomb down the flanks and cause panic, basically doing what he normally does but over a longer run. As a result you have Sandro play around his area and catch up on the slack of basically have your left back try to play winger and full back at the same time. The only thing different in Bale’s role is he should be looking to dump the ball off to someone who should be open after causing panic, rather than simply running for goal or the line as he does now, then dropping back. This would also allow Modric to never have to worry about coming back to collect if Bale is going to bring the ball up himself. Using this strategy should preserve and still use Bale’s strengths while still allowing an ideal level of talent to be on the field rather than letting someone like VDV, Modric, or Lennon sit on the bench to preserve the 4-4-2 and play to positional definition.

  6. spursoops

    September 3, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Who cares… spurs are in loads of trouble after tonight… no woodgate, not king, and now no dawson. LOL!

  7. Mickey the Pikey

    September 3, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    I fink der datbeen a travler, he cun pleey aneewuuur deer.

  8. patrick

    September 3, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    can he play center back? Dawson just cluncked his knee.

  9. Hiano

    September 3, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Modric is too lightweight to be an effective central midfield playmaker in the Premier League. He was most comfortable and had his best games for Spurs playing on the left. So, if he is to be accommodated, Bale has to drop to left back. However, only time will tell if VdV turns out to be a better central midfield playmaker than Modric.

    • Jesse Chula

      September 3, 2010 at 3:18 pm

      Good feedback and you are correct in that we’ll just have to wait and see.

      However, there’s no way I pick anyone over Bale on the left of midfield. He’s currently the best in the Premier League at that position.

    • mw828

      September 4, 2010 at 2:32 am

      This is just completely inaccurate. If you watched him play in CM at the end of last season you would have seen that he was at his best in a more free central role. He is in fact small, but that doesn’t mean he is ineffective. He is a decent defender; he anticipates well and intercepts a lot of passes. He is also surprisingly strong and resilient for his size. I have no idea what harry will do, but I don’t think there is really any optimal way to play this since you can’t perfectly accommodate two out and out wingers, 2 CAM’s and a holding MF. I’m sure harry would really like to get bale, lennon, modric, thudd, and VdV all in the MF but its not really possible.

      • spurman

        September 6, 2010 at 11:57 am

        You can’t but when you can have Bale at left back you can create space for everyone. just think about it – 4-2-3-1.

        Any Striker

        With this, Bale can make his olympic runs down the wing whilst palacios and Hudd can provide cover from the counter. I accept now modric is not an out and out winger but he played for us in that position previously and was really good. Bale is getting double marked now which is inhibiting his effectiveness. Bale coming from LB would negate this and allow for modric to run riot and VDV to do what he does best.

        Lennon goes without saying, as does our strikeforce.


  10. spooks

    September 3, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    I would drop a recognised striker (rotate), & play van der vaart, modric or kranjar as second forward…

  11. Acton_Yid

    September 3, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    I disagree. I think it is entirely possible to play Modric AND VdV. Consider Bale and Lennon occupying the wing play, ok, that’s easy. I would then play Modric alongside Palacios with VdV in “the hole” behind the hold up striker. Essentially, Modric’s role is to play deeper and dictate the play by getting the ball to either Bale on the left wing, Lennon on the right or down the middle to VdV. VdV’s role is to receive the ball and either attack for goal himself or pass to the hold-up striker, or look for Bale and Lennon entering the opponent’s box from the wings. Palacios is there to cover Modric if he gets overrun in the middle. Clearly, there will be tracking back duties for VdV to fulfil as he will need to close down opposing defenders in the defensive phase of play.

  12. MonkeyD

    September 3, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I don’t think it’s a problem. You look at united and they have 7 players capable of starting for them in midfield and not look out of place. The same for Arsenal and Chelsea. Strength in depth is definately needed when your playing all four’s. Where he’ll start? Probably on the left or as and offensive minded midfielder.

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