Rafael van der Vaart
New signing Rafael van der Vaart made a positive start to his Tottenham career against West Bromwich Albion, and was involved in Spurs’ three best chances of the match. A delightful interchanging of passes with Luka Modric and Aaron Lennon resulted in a fine opportunity for the latter, who should have at least hit the target after van der Vaart’s deft back-heel. Soon after, the Dutchman crossed from deep in the direction of Roman Pavlyuchenko, with the ball eventually landing at the feet of Modric to stroke past Scott Carson. At the start of the second half, van der Vaart intelligently released the enthusiastic Gareth Bale who failed to beat Carson with the outside of his boot.
Van der Vaart possesses the very traits that Tottenham have lacked since Dimitar Berbatov left for Manchester United. Spurs have been devoid of creativity in the final third for some time, heavily reliant on two of the most exciting wide-men in the Premier league: Lennon and Bale. While Tom Huddlestone has developed into a fine deep-lying playmaker, against compact and organised defences that suffocate space, he often plays too laterally to penetrate defences. Wilson Palacios, though energetic and hard-working, is poor in possession and Jermaine Jenas suffers from a crippling lack of confidence which prevents him from asserting himself in games for fear of failure. Modric (see below) is an often solitary figure of central attacking verve in Tottenham’s midfield.
But against West Brom, operating between the lines, van der Vaart frequently found himself with time and space to dictate Tottenham’s attacks and open up the West Brom back-line. He was never afraid to show for the ball, he was always looking to release players early, always probing the Baggies’ defence and his movement was in stark contrast to his static teammates. Eager to please, the ex-Real Madrid man was as hardworking and terrier-like as Carlos Tevez for the first hour, before tiring significantly. And, as he tired, his influence on the game diminished, and Tottenham’s control of the game was reduced as a result.
Harry Redknapp will hope van der Vaart can form a similar understanding with Jermain Defoe as Wayne Rooney. Against Bulgaria, Rooney was involved in all three of Defoe’s goals, dropping into space and threading the ball through for Defoe to finish. Van der Vaart fulfilled a similar role as Rooney against West Brom, though created little for the largely ineffectual Pavlyuchenko. It is a position that van der Vaart craves (but has been denied at Real Madrid and for the Netherlands), and Redknapp liked what he saw: “That position suits him. You always need special players that can make the difference. Van der Vaart can do that. Defoe gives us something else, with his sharpness around the box. Jermain’s a goalscorer. I could see him playing with van der Vaart like he plays with Rooney. Van der Vaart can drop deep and slide through balls in for him to score.”
The Importance of Luka Modric
Despite being fortunate to escape the Hawthorns with a point, Spurs should be buoyed by a promising opening half hour in which they maintained possession well and looked assured on the ball. This was in no small part down to the diminutive Croatian, Luka Modric, whose ability to dictate tempo and passing rhythm was sorely missed after he was injured just a couple of minutes after opening the scoring. To describe the match as a game of two halves would not accurately reflect the importance Modric’s withdrawal had on Tottenham.
While Modric was on the pitch, Spurs attempted 178 passes, of which only 14 didn’t find their target. Conversely, post Modric’s substitution, Spurs attempted 246 passes, of which 40 were unsuccessful. Spurs recorded 5.74 passes per minute (with a pass success rate of 92%) during Modric’s 32 influential minutes. This dropped significantly after he hobbled off the pitch, falling to 4.15 passes per minute (with a success rate of 83%).
Modric was a constant outlet in the first half, floating around the pitch to receive the ball and feed his teammates. Modric’s presence has a metronomic effect on the team, and when he departed Spurs looked unsure in possession and rudderless. Unsurprisingly, Harry Redknapp was disappointed that Modric was forced to come off: “Modric makes the difference. He could play in any team, anywhere in the world. When you lose him, you can’t replace him.”
Modric and van der Vaart – A Match Made in Heaven?
The opening exchanges against West Brom saw the beginnings of a quick-thinking, fast-moving and smart-passing relationship between Modric and van der Vaart, which could develop into a formidable understanding. For too long Modric has been a solitary figure of movement and guile within Tottenham’s midfield, and van der Vaart already appears attuned to the Croatian’s wavelength.
Being played in his favoured position, off the front man, van der Vaart dropped into pockets of space and combined well with Modric. Both looked to pass and move, enabling Tottenham to dominate possession. Spurs fans will be pleased to know that, following a scan, Modric has been given the all clear to travel to Bremen (though is unlikely to play).