A fit and healthy Aaron Lennon has been in great form for Tottenham Hotspur.
"He has been massive. Sometimes he lives a little bit in the shadows, he recognises he can be at another level in terms of his performances”, Villas-Boas told Reading" target="_blank">Sky Sports after his side’s 3-1 defeat of Reading.
After the same game, Scott Parker went so far as to say that Lennon’s form of late has been the best of his career, adding “over the last four or five weeks he's been unplayable really” (via ESPN FC).
Parker was right to emphasise the difficulty of the questions Lennon has been posing opponents with his play. But in declaring that Lennon is playing the best football of his career, he is in a respect (unintentionally) denigrating what his teammate has done in the past.
Lennon has been playing at a relatively high level since arriving in North London in 2005. There have been improvements and dips in form along the way, but generally his performances have not fluctuated to the extent some would have you believe.
While he is undoubtedly benefiting from Villas-Boas’ faith in his ability, the main change for Lennon this season has been his avoidance of the injuries that have plagued him over the last few years.
Lennon has long been fighting against a wider, slightly uninformed perception of what he is about as a player.
For England, his critics would choose to compare his crossing to the likes of David Beckham and Steven Gerrard and then lambaste him for not matching up (neglecting to mention that neither could get into as dangerous positions to cross on the right as Lennon could). In Tottenham colours, he has been overshadowed by the more statistically productive Gareth Bale.
But even amid fitness problems and questions over his ability, Lennon has consistently been one of the Spurs’ key contributors.
In the early days of Harry Redknapp’s reign, some would look at Lennon’s good form at the time as evidence his new manager had rejuvenated a wayward talent (as this Guardian article somewhat suggests).
Where Redknapp deserved credit was for restoring the confidence of the Tottenham squad as a whole. Lennon was one of several players who had struggled late in Juande Ramos’ brief tenure. But he had hardly been underperforming prior to the start of that 2008-09 season; in fact, it was quite the opposite.
Twenty-four assists and nine goals was the respectable statistical tally from his first three seasons at the club, but Lennon’s importance to the team was larger than that. The speedy and tricky arrival from Leeds United had injected a fresh sense of excitement and creativity into the wide play of a Tottenham team that was becoming increasingly competitive.
Evaluating the significance of that to a team is difficult. But in that first season under Redknapp, it was measured by the club’s members and season tickets holders voting him their player of the year.
The opening half of the following campaign saw Lennon begin to unite the crowd-pleasing aspects of his game with all-around performances that ranked among the best of his career (yes, back then in 2009). He was well on track to recording double-figure assists before a groin injury robbed him of several months’ worth of matches (he finished on nine assists that season).
In the years since then, Lennon, when fit, has got on with his game as the more directly impressive Bale has gained worldwide acclaim. Though not evolving into the kind of force many believe Bale will, Lennon has remained one of the Premier League’s most dangerous threats on the right flank.
Even though his speed has decreased by a couple of degrees, he can still torment full-backs like few others can. Greater anticipation of his teammates' penalty-box movements has improved the quality of his crossing too (though it was underrated). In constructing attacks from further back and even in helping defend, he is much better than many of his peers.
Should Lennon remain healthy, there is every chance he can continue to perform at this level for a while longer. Excitingly for Spurs fans, Villas-Boas clearly believes he can do more.
On his poorer days, Lennon at least attempts to muster something out of nothing. But even in his better showings, he sometimes finds himself on the periphery or “a little bit in the shadows” as his manager describes.
Bale has a way of demanding the opposition’s attention so he can batter them into submission, whereas Lennon’s game has always carried an air of espionage about it.
The final point of evolution in his career may be summoning a previously dormant capability to truly impose his will on a game. Villas-Boas knows he has a terrific player anyway, but if he can inspire that from Lennon, he will truly be on to something.