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Rafael van der Vaart: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good

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 Bad

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).

The Ugly

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.

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  1. David

    October 9, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Fantastic article

  2. Z

    October 8, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    One flaw in the argument: the assumption, based on a couple pf goals this season, that Defoe is any good. He isn’t. The guy is average at best and total pony at worst. VDV is a match winner, a big game player; Defoe is the purveyor of cheap goals against crap teams when the game has already been won by others. Last season VDV was our top scorer and leading assister. What did Defoe achieve? Against Goons people say VDV played badly? Still put Parker in for a one on one ,scored a goal and could have had a first half hat trick. He has to play. Simple.

  3. ish

    October 8, 2011 at 5:39 am

    i dont really see the issue. play vdv behind adebayor. ade as central striker, vdv as a false 9/treq ala lamps/drogba or gerrard/torres

    with parker and modric in the mid you have a good solid mifield. defense is adequate and on the left u have bale, the only weakness is the right, lennon is ok but a left footed striker or possibly even defoe cutting in more often could work. a lopsided 433 in someways.

  4. Young

    October 7, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    VDV was never happy sitting on the bench at Real Madrid and when he was put into a game he showed it by trying to do it on his own rather than pass to teammates when he could have. After a while he didn’t play much and his attitude forced Real to sell him on the cheap. If Harry doesn’t pick him much he could be a problem. As long as he is playing everything will be fine.

  5. scrumper

    October 7, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Fairly obvious you watched the Spurs v Arsenal game and repeated what the pundits said. Redknapp played him out of position, realised it and took corrective action. VDV sat on the bench a lot at RM and didn’t cause trouble so let’s not get carried away with a Tevez type situation. This is a guy that wants to play football every minute of every day. This is where good management comes in. I’d be keeping a closer eye on Adebayor. He’s fallen out pretty specatularily with every club he’s played for, and it will be interesting to see if Harry can tame him.

    • DoublePivot

      October 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm

      Really? They were talking about Tottenham’s links back to 1996-97 Sevilla? Were they? I must have missed that.

  6. Gary

    October 7, 2011 at 10:31 am

    With Defoe and Adebayor in the team VDV has to be more defensive and cover the wings. Harry took him out in the Arsenal game when he noticed VDV was becoming a liability in defending his side of the field. VDV is better suited playing just behind the striker in a free role. With the Defoe-Adebayor partnership gelling I can see VDV’s role diminsihing and Harry can afford to take him off early in a game or leave him out altogether. How DVD deals with it is the big question.

  7. thomas

    October 6, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Modric can operate as a tucked in Winger on the right if need be, especially when fielding the 4-2-3-1..That still leaves Bale as a threat down the left, and lets VDV play centrally.

    Ade has the strength to be alone up top, but the movement and passing ability to open space in the channels for the wingers to exploit.

  8. Daniel

    October 6, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Great article. The one place that I would take exception to your analysis is of the 4-4-1 or 4-2-3-1. You’re right that they didn’t work last season but there are two major differences now: Adebayor instead of Crouch, and Solid DMs in Parker and Sandro (who wasn’t fully used last season).

    I also (mostly) agree with TJ that Lennon is not the answer at RM (even if I wouldn’t say he’s terrible, he’s not good enough for the squad).

    I think 4-2-3-1 could work really well with either Modric or VdV in the middle (AM). Both are too good to sit on the bench, though, and while they’re excellent players we don’t need both.
    At the point I think we should look into selling Modric or VdV (probably the latter) as well as Lennon while he still has a fairly high valuation. We need a solid RM (Goetze or Erikson come to mind) and already have solid backups in Gio and Kranjcar who could play either position.

  9. DoublePivot

    October 6, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I do agree that if VDV can keep from throwing his toys that he provides a lot of options for changing a game. There are times when we need to move to certain formations that he is better suited to, which would make him a massive asset.

  10. thomas

    October 6, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Though it is troubling that VDV needs to be deployed between the lines of Striker/Midfield to be at his best, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for Harry. It gives him some variety, and can give the squad a different look. As you pointed out, the big issue is VDV expects to start every game, and if he doesn’t it could cause problems.

    But you have to look no further than the game last year against Arsenal…Spurs were getting overrun by the Gunners in the first half, and in the second, Harry moved VDV off the striker to the right side of midfield, and his tendency to drift into the middle gave Spurs the extra man in midfield, and they went on to win the match.

  11. cy

    October 6, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Lennon is Spurs 7th best midfielder…maybe 8th. I’d probably put Krancjar ahead of him. He should struggle to make the bench of a full strength Spurs team.

  12. TJ

    October 6, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Great article and very accurate description of VdV’s role with Spurs. As a Spurs fan, I have one major quibble with the argument though. You believe the wings are a massive strength when Lennon is healthy. There is a problem, Lennon is awful. He is fast, that’s it. We have been waiting for years for his final ball to improve but it’s not going to happen. The team is better without him on it. He is dazzling to watch because of his speed but he is not a good player and he wastes possession far too often.

    That being said, I definitely understand VdV is not a permanent answer on the right wing. He simply doesn’t play defense and doesn’t keep the shape. That being said, I think he is the best option for Spurs if they want to keep playing the 4-4-2 (which they should). Rafa will continue to play about 60-65 minutes a game (might be out wide, might be partnering with Adebayor) with Niko, Sandro and others rotating in for him. As long as they keep winning, there is no reason to remove the goal scoring Dutchman from the team.

    • Shan

      October 8, 2011 at 7:30 am

      I fail to understand what you mean by ‘awful’, awful at what exactly? When we finished fourth it was no surprise he got the most assists for us, 10, not forgetting scoring vital, last minute goals which I remember clearly.. also the run against AC Milan which took some brilliance. Lennon tends to get doubled up on in man games, which allows Bale to get space.. Lennon has been injured as of late and is constantly playing with a new full back, when he was playing with Corluka week in week out he was class. I admit, he has been poor as of late, but our strikers couldn’t score in a brothel? Defoe, 24 matches, 4 odd goals? Nobody ever seems to bring up his form? I have no doubt Lennon will come good… the quality and potential has been seen, nobody turns crap over night!

  13. Bentley

    October 6, 2011 at 11:18 am

    It’s pretty funny that this came up today. Me and some of the other guys i play with were just talking about the future of this immensely talented midfielder. I have to say this was a very well put description of his role at Spurs. The biggest problem with loosing Modric is that he can’t use VDV to fill his shoes because of the way Redknapp plays his pitch. As far as the success of the team goes, i don’t think there will be a problem. They’re a good squad and they have a great manager.

  14. abiodun joshua

    October 6, 2011 at 10:29 am

    i have been playing 4 fifteen years now i have also experience such type of something bcos someone cannot b happy everyday.

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