For 61 minutes against FC Twente, Rafael van der Vaart gave a virtuoso performance of the highest calibre. He was both the conductor and the orchestra, encouraging, dictating and executing every attack. He instigated most of Tottenham’s offensive manoeuvres, often from deep in his own half, before bursting forward to test Twente goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov (son of Borislav) whenever possible. Van der Vaart was the very soul of Tottenham’s attacking impetus, and could have scored a hat-trick in the first half but for an inspired Mihaylov.
Van der Vaart had more shots than any other player, stinging the hands of Mihaylov on numerous occasions: a crafty bicycle kick, a powerful half volley and a well struck (and well saved) penalty – a penalty, incidentally, that van der Vaart created. In the 46th minute, he cunningly controlled a Peter Crouch knock down with his chest before swivelling and volleying past Mihaylov. Fifteen minutes later he would be sent off, but it would not prevent Tottenham winning the game, or effect how his purposeful, attacking and technically astute performance would be perceived post-match.
Off the ball, van der Vaart shuffles around the pitch with all the grace of a wounded woodland creature. That’s no great surprise given that he had his entire meniscus removed in 2002. Against Twente, van der Vaart also displayed an appetite to harass the opposition, epitomised by a heroic first half block to extinguish the not insignificant threat posed by Theo Janssen’s powerful left foot. This zealous work ethic and desire to win back possession, combined with the frustration of missing a penalty, led to his first yellow card. His second yellow once again stemmed from a feverish voracity to reclaim the ball.
With the ball at his feet, van der Vaart is an elegant artisan. He weaves between opponents, manipulating pockets of space others do not notice, let alone exploit. His (unfavoured) starting position on the right of midfield did little to constrain him. Freeing himself of the fetters imposed by Harry Redknapp’s preferred 4-4-2, van der Vaart roamed and meandered around the pitch. He was often deeper than the defence-minded central midfield duo of Tom Huddlestone and Luka Modric, receiving the ball from his centre-backs before a quick interchanging of passes coupled with intelligent movement saw him stroll (generally unmarked) into dangerous areas. How can you mark someone whose movement is so varied and unpredictable? (The answer is that you don’t, rather you stop them from playing by other means – van der Vaart suffered more fouls than any other player, despite playing half an hour less)
Ledley King, a player more familiar than most with van der Vaart’s own injury woes, lavished the Dutchman with praise after his influential performance against Twente. More interestingly though, King highlighted the traits van der Vaart possesses that have been so sorely missed by Tottenham. “He took the team by the scruff of the neck at times when things weren’t always working for us. You could see he wanted the ball and he wanted to make things happen and that rubbed off on us in the end.”
More specifically, van der Vaart bore the weight of Spurs’ creative responsibilities. But, quite unusually for a player wearing the Lilywhite of Spurs, van der Vaart embraced that responsibility. Grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck is a cliché frequently levied upon players from Sky’s so-called “top four” (such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Cesc Fabregas and Didier Drogba), though it is a turn of phrase rarely heard at White Hart Lane.
Van der Vaart is at a club long infected by a crippling fear of failure (perhaps personified by Jermaine Jenas, whose potential is diluted by an unwillingness to consistently dominate and take control of matches), and an inexperience of winning. Balancing the necessity of three points with the expectation of exciting, attacking football is a feat many of Spurs players are unaccustomed to. That’s not true of van der Vaart, whose CV includes Ajax, a team that pioneered “Total Football” in the late 1960s/early 70s (and with whom he won the Eredivisie), and Real Madrid, whose fans demand both success and a pleasing aesthetic.
Against Twente, Gareth Bale swung one of many lofted crosses towards the far post and the towering frame of Peter Crouch. In doing so, Bale neglected to pick out the advancing van der Vaart, who had made a well-timed burst into the box. Van der Vaart was furious and vented that frustrating by attempting to strangle his own testicles with his shorts. Bale opted to play the simpler, more rudimentary ball (that was comfortably dealt with), rather than risk an infield, creative pass that would have inevitably led to a shot on goal.
“It is far less arduous, after all, to lump long balls in the general direction of a forward than to endure the agonies of creation.” – Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid
Bale’s decision encapsulated the fundamental problem that the vast majority of Tottenham’s squad suffer from: it is easier to lump balls forward, to cross without measure or calculation, than it is to carry the burden of precise and considered attacking/creative probing. This is neatly summarised by Jonathan Wilson (see quote above). Of course Bale is not a major culprit (and it would be harsh to criticise a player whose recent performances have been so exhilarating), but, prior to van der Vaart’s arrival, Spurs were only too happy to ignore the creative process in favour of long balls aimed at the lofty Crouch (though to blame Crouch would be to ignore a team that, as a collective, favour a less demanding style of play). Against Bolton in the FA Cup, it was not the Trotters who played “route one” football. Michael Dawson, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Vedran Corluka and Tom Huddlestone routinely chose the less arduous option – long balls in the general direction of Crouch – while even the likes of Bale, Aaron Lennon and Luka Modric have a tendency to seek Crouch first, and creativity second.
But in van der Vaart, Tottenham have a player who does not fear “the agonies of creation”, or shirk the responsibilities of attacking inventiveness. In fact, he rather enjoys it and, with any luck, that indulgence in the artistry of attacking, creative football might just rub off on the rest of the Spurs squad, regardless of Crouch’s presence.
*Yes, another article about Rafael van der Vaart. At this rate I’ll need to change the title of the Blog…though fittingly van der Vaart spends rather a lot of time in the hole (no pun intended).