Tottenham must march to the beat of Van der Vaart’s drum
AT Real Madrid, Rafael van der Vaart was more accustomed to being among the supporting cast rather than the main act. At Tottenham, he is simply stealing the show.
Six games, four goals – even the most optimistic Spurs supporter could not have predicted such an earth-shattering introduction to Premier League life for the Dutch midfield maestro. ‘A special player’, is Harry Redknapp’s verdict.
And all this after Jose Mourinho, the self-styled ‘special one’, deemed Van der Vaart surplus to requirements at the Bernabeu. Even Mourinho makes mistakes. Already, Van der Vaart is Redknapp’s first name on the team-sheet.
Exactly where on that team-sheet was the problem facing Redknapp at half-time against Aston Villa. Such is the fleet-footed No.11’s habit of floating along the attacking line, picking holes and making darting runs, he seemed to leave even his manager in a spin.
“He’s good for us,” said Redknapp. “But I can’t lie, it makes balancing the team difficult.
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“He’s never going to stay wide when you play him there. In the end he only comes inside and plays where he wants to play. He wants to be involved so he is never going to stay out wide.
“When you have a special player you have to work at finding a way of getting the best out of him and finding a way that suits him. I wouldn’t change him.”
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Far from changing Van der Vaart, Redknapp’s answer seems to be to adjust the rest of the side to suit his new acquisition. Against Villa, Redknapp initially deployed Van der Vaart on the right wing in a formation that he later admitted was almost suicidally attack-minded, with Jermaine Jenas, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale all similarly licensed to throw themselves at the Villa defence.
It was a move doomed to failure. Villa quickly scored on the counter-attack against a thread-bare Tottenham defence and, despite Van der Vaart – who else – levelling on the very stroke of half-time, Redknapp urgently needed to change things.
“To play two out and out strikers is very difficult,” continued Redknapp. “Rafael floats so if we play with two it leaves us very open.
“We were too open in the first half, we were short of central defenders and we had no protection, We looked more solid in the second half.”
That change proved stunningly effective. By removing Roman Pavlyuchenko and unleashing Van der Vaart centrally behind Peter Crouch, while throwing Aaron Lennon onto the right wing, Redknapp freed the Dutchman to torture Villa from his favoured position, the position from which he hit a sumptous winner in the second half.
That 45 minutes of football told Redknapp all he needed to know. Playing Van der Vaart in a 4-4-2 formation clearly will not work for Tottenham.
The Dutchman is infinitely more effective when operating between midfield and attack and, if by playing two up front Spurs are exposed, it must be behind a lone forward man.
Similar to the Steven Gerrard-Fernando Torres partnership which ignited Liverpool’s title challenge two years ago, such a move would grant Tottenham a more balanced midfield offering greater protection to the back four, while offering Van der Vaart the chance to develop his understanding with Spurs’ strikers.
Against FC Twente and Aston Villa, that front-man was Crouch, and the two certainly displayed the early signs of a ruthless partnership. Crouch teed them up, Van der Vaart finished them off. Clinical and ruthless.
However, that is less encouraging for Tottenham’s remaining strikers. Jermain Defoe, sidelined with an ankle sprain until mid-December, must have sat uncomfortably as he watched Crouch and Van der Vaart.
Redknapp has already admitted he will base much of his plan this season around Van der Vaart, and he will now certainly stick with that same partnership in the coming weeks and months, particularly away from home, where the 4-5-1 formation is ideal for quick, counter-attacking football.
If the duo’s understanding continues to blossom, it is debatable whether the manager would return to two up front and risk upsetting his side’s balance once again – Defoe may well be made to wait for his chance.
It is a similar story for Pavlyuchenko, and it was hard not to feel symphatic as he was forced to make way for Redknapp’s system change at the time he knows he must prove his worth after last season’s highs and lows.
As domestic and European games continue to come thick and fast, Redknapp will rotate his squad, but will that be enough to keep Pavlyuchenko happy with another stop-start season? Doubtful.
Redknapp though, will happily cut his losses. In the second half against Aston Villa, Tottenham looked a perfectly balanced attacking unit, with Bale and Lennon slicing through the visitors down each wing.
Against Villa, Tottenham’s signing of the summer emphatically showed Redknapp exactly where he is at his frightning best.
“The best is yet to come” he promised after the game. If the best is better than his showing on Saturday, signing Van der Vaart for �8million may well prove Tottenham’s best bit of business in recent years.