When one looks to the Premier League to pick out the very best midfielders, a few names always come to the fore.
Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea) and Paul Scholes (Manchester United) are all phenomenal players with each and every one playing for one of the established powers of English football. However, with their latest signing, Rafael van der Vaart, Spurs now undoubtedly have a player who can match the very best, which begs the question; Can Spurs progress further with van der Vaart pulling the strings?
Manchester City are doing their level best to break into the top four and have invested over £325 million in new players over the last three years but have yet to sign a genuine world class talent. However, when Daniel Levy swooped for Rafael van der Vaart for just £8 million, from Real Madrid, there was little doubt that Spurs were bringing in a supreme talent to rival the very best the Premier League can offer.
The Dutch play-maker has always enjoyed a reputation as a player who likes, and knows how, to play the game.
When he made his debut as a 17-year-old for Ajax in 2000, it was apparent to even a blind-man that van der Vaart had a phenomenal skill-set. A maturity and coolness on the ball that belied his tender years, a gift for seeing a pass where others only see road-blocks and an eye for scoring goals marked him out as a player who could succeed at the highest levels of the game.
Co Adriaanse knew that he had a prodigy on his hands right from the start and moved the youngster into first team action as the support behind the striker the following season. Feeling it was the best position to reap the benefits from his young play-maker.
Following in the foot-steps of Jari Litmanen, who had redefined the role as Ajax’s No.10 in their 3-1-3-3 formation, van der Vaart had huge boots to fill and the youngster did not disappoint. Weighing in with 60 goals in 140 games from midfield he caught the eye of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
But they weren’t just interested in his excellent goal scoring record; his passing ability was what made his stand out from the ordinary. Laser like precision, super-human vision, and a range of passing that was simply incredible made him a player that was coveted by every major team.
Just when the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, and Manchester United were closing in, van der Vaart chose to go to the little fancied team of Hamburg in Germany for just £5 million.
It was something of a strange move to say the least, especially on current form. But Hamburg have always enjoyed a reputation as being something of a black sheep in German football. They have a deep history of playing expansive free-flowing football and are always one of the most entertaining teams in the Bundesliga.
In short, the move to Die Rothosen was an ideal one for van der Vaart, especially when you consider that he wanted to remain at a high level but may have wanted to avoid the kind of attention he was forced to endure during his final weeks at Ajax.
At Hamburg, he was simply brilliant, playing a pivotal role as the link between attack and midfield. He dictated the ebb and flow of every game he played in and predictably went on to garner the attention of every major European club again.
Playing from either the right or the centre van der Vaart scored 48 goals in 116 matches from midfield. Once again, the likes of Chelsea, Barcelona, and Real Madrid stood up and took notice of the player and it came as no surprise to see the prodigious midfielder join Madrid after three successful seasons in the Bundesliga.
His phenomenal last season with Hamburg and fantastic start to his Real Madrid career, scoring a career first hat-trick against Sporting Gijon, saw van der Vaart nominated for the Ballon D’Or in 2008 but he lost out to Cristiano Ronaldo who was at Manchester United at the time.
By the end of the 2008/09 season, Real Madrid was something of a mess with Juande Ramos at the helm. The ex-Spurs boss did not take much of a liking to van der Vaart’s style of play and primarily used him as an impact sub where his flexibility and technical prowess could be utilised in a number of positions, wide, inside, midfield, or attack.
Sensing that the Dutchman did not have much of a future at the Bernabeu, the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal began to make discreet overtures towards the player. He, however, made it very clear that his future lay in Spain.
The matter was complicated when Manuel Pellegrini refused to give him a squad number for the following season but transfers to Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, and Klass Jan Huntelaar left the door open for van der Vaart to claim the final 25th place in Madrid’s squad.
Despite being something of a bit part player in his final season van der Vaart’s skill shone through and it became an open secret that he was available for transfer at the start of the 2010/11 season.
Bayern Munich had been tracking the player for sometime, Liverpool’s financial trouble’s ruled them out as suitors completely, Chelsea had just signed Ramires and Yossi Benayoun and thus removed themselves from the equation, and United and Arsenal were looking elsewhere leaving the avenue wide open for Louis van Gaal to investigate.
Munich was always interested in the player but strangely, according to Madrid, never placed a bid for the player.
If they were interested the move to Bayern was scuppered when Spurs placed an 11th hour bid of £8 million for the play-maker and the rest is history.
The way van der Vaart came to the attention of Harry Redknapp and Daniel Levy, Tottenham’s Chief Executive, is a great story in itself. Levy is an incredibly astute man and communicates with everyone throughout the structure at Spurs.
He often asks people at Spurs for their opinions on players and who they would like to see at the club, using a wisdom of crowd’s type approach, and when van der Vaart’s name kept been mentioned he thought there might be something to his availability.
Harry Redknapp had already signalled the Dutchman out a few months earlier as a player the club should definitely go for if the finances were right, and at an £8 million transfer fee and just £9 million over a four year contract, van der Vaart may prove to be one of the bargains of the season.
There is little doubting his obvious talent and ability, and in him Spurs have a player to join the likes of Luka Modric, Ledley King (when available) and Gareth Bale as genuine match winners.
Van der Vaart gives Spurs something they thought they already had, but are now finding that certain players vision and skill is on another level completely.
He also brings a midfield goal-scoring ability that was otherwise lacking at Tottenham last season. Tom Huddlestone only scored four goals all season, Luka Modric and Aaron Lennon; just three a piece while Niko Kranjcar weighed in with a respectable six goals from 26 games.
His contemporaries in England are the supreme Cesc Fabregas, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard. All three midfielders dominate and dictate the teams from which they come.
Fabregas is probably the most complete midfielder of all four players although the defensive side of his game needs a little work if he is to become a “complete” player. His passing ability, and reading of the game are a joy to watch and he is the link and lynch-pin behind everything that is good about Arsenal.
He has been an integral part of Arsene Wenger’s philosophy since he made his debut in 2003 and has amassed 51 goals in 272 games for the Gunners.
Like Fabregas, Gerrard has been a one club man for his entire career. There is no doubting that the most productive period of Gerrard’s career was under Rafael Benitez.
Primarily utilised as an attacking midfielder who linked seamlessly with Fernando Torres over the last couple of seasons, Gerrard has developed an incredible knack for popping up and scoring vital and incredible goals likewise.
As a player he lacks the ability to dictate the flow of a game from central midfield, but when played in an advanced role it is hard to think of any player that does the job better. His record of 136 goals from 539 games is made all the better when you realise that the vast majority of those strikes have come in the last five years.
Lampard is something of a middle ground between Fabregas and Gerrard, but has an incredible record none-the-less. While he would also be recognised as a player who does his best work in the final third of the pitch, he has made a habit of defending too and is probably the most accomplished of the four in this area of the pitch.
He doesn’t have the same vision or creativity level as Fabregas, nor is he as dynamic as Gerrard, but he has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time, almost every time. His ability to read the game is superb and he has been vital to Chelsea’s fortunes since joining the Blues in 2001.
His overall club record reads as having played 670 games and scoring 197 goals, all from a midfield.
A simple look at all their records reads;
Fabregas Pld 272 Goals 51 (1:5.3 one goal every five games)
Gerrard Pld 539 Goals 136 (1:4)
Lampard Pld 670 Goals 197 (1:3.4)
Van der Vaart Pld 334 Goals 124 (1:2.7)
In short Spurs have signed a player who has the same, if not better, levels of vision as Cesc Fabregas and a phenomenal goal scoring record to boot. It is also worth noting that during his time at Real Madrid he also contributed by creating a goal-scoring chance at an average of every 31 minutes of play.
Given the phenomenal levels of play and creativity that Spurs’ fans have seen in just six games it is fair to say that they deserve to be optimistic of the clubs immediate future. However, the real proof will be in assessing van der Vaart’s contribution at the end of the season. If Redknapp can keep his players performance levels high whilst integrating him into his team then Spurs will have a real chance of breaking the top four once again.
To go further, Redknapp has to sign a world class striker and repair his ailing defence.