Tottenham Hotspur: Spurs' Midfield Options Ahead of Paulinho's Possible Arrival
Several media outlets all but have the Brazil international joining Tottenham. As if to remind everyone not to get too far ahead of themselves, though, an article in the Wednesday edition of The Times suggested Real Madrid may now also be interested in the player's signature.
Even without Paulinho, Spurs possess considerable central midfield options.
With competition for places likely to be fierce, it is looking likely that at least one or two of Spurs' current midfielders will depart.
Over the following few pages, we take a look at their prospects and make the case for those who might have another year at White Hart Lane ahead of them.
Filling the void left by Luka Modric was no small task. Mousa Dembele was not a like-for-like replacement for the departing Croatian, but he ensured there was little drop-off in class in the Tottenham midfield last season.
Commendably, the Belgian took on a similar level of influence, almost straight away upon joining. Spurs looked to play through him, and he was intelligent and skillful enough to make it work as he increasingly adjusted to the rhythm of his new team.
Andre Villas-Boas' side looked worse off without Dembele during an injury-enforced absence in the autumn. His return in late November prompted a run of form that saw Spurs go unbeaten in the league until March.
After Sandro's season-ending injury in January, the increase in Dembele's defensive duties ultimately took a toll on him.
The greater focus here made for him having a lesser impact in attack. Even when the reins were slackened slightly, the Belgium international's efforts had left him too tired to be as influential as previously.
Villas-Boas will be grateful at being able to rely on Dembele to do so much. But the manager will also be aware that to see the best of his player, he needs to be able to relieve him of some of the burden he carried in 2012-13.
Dembele has an all-round game that ensures he will never be confined to one job. Deciding on what it is he truly excels at, though—that might be what it takes for an already talented player to become even better.
If you want a moment that sums up Sandro's toughness, look no further than Tottenham's away game at Southampton in October 2012.
Saints midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin blasted a shot that the Brazilian proceeded to block with his head. Such was its power, it knocked him to the ground, yet he was up on his feet within a couple of seconds.
Gareth Bale would probably have been receiving "treatment" for half an hour, that is if he hadn't ducked out of the way. Against Newcastle United in December, Arsenal's Jack Wilshere actually tried to move out of the way of a Demba Ba free-kick and ended up deflecting it into the net.
Spurs missed Sandro's destructive qualities after injury ended his campaign in January. Losing the reassurance of knowing he was there in almost any situation meant for an added stress for his teammates.
Sandro works best with someone to balance his defensive leanings—as was evident when the more dynamic Dembele was absent last autumn.
His team, however, is undoubtedly that much better for the Brazil international's presence.
The apprenticeship he had served in the English game over the previous couple of years had laid the foundations for the evolution of his own characteristics.
Once fully fit again, Tottenham's midfield beast could be about to become even more dominant in the Premier League.
Scott Parker won the Tottenham fans' player of the year award for his efforts in 2011-12. That summer, he represented England at the European Championships—his first major tournament.
Those combined efforts led to an unintended, though largely necessary, break. Not only to recover from an injury that cropped up, but also to allow the hard-working midfielder to rest his weary legs.
Parker himself told the London Evening Standard the time off did him some good. Physically, this may have been the case. Football-wise, not so much.
Missing the chance to work under his new manager did not aid Parker's ability to adapt to Villas-Boas' new methods. Perhaps more costly was the opportunity it cost him to jell with new arrivals he would soon be playing alongside—notably Dembele
Coming back as he did in mid-season, routines and rhythms were already established in a way they would not have been early on.
The situation was exacerbated by Sandro's injury. It forced a defensive burden on Parker and Dembele that did not sit naturally with two players who shared similar, all-action instincts.
It is hard to fault Parker asserting himself as he did, wanting to help his team by driving them forward—on occasion, that would have been welcome. Overall, though, he probably should have ceded the initiative to Dembele more often than he did.
Given a summer to work on this balance, Parker could well find an understanding with some of his newer teammates akin to what he shared with Luka Modric.
At 32, though, he is likely to find starting opportunities increasingly limited anyway. A move elsewhere might be the best option for all parties.
Originally, Lewis Holtby was meant to be arriving in North London about now.
Sandro's injury in January persuaded Tottenham to buy the German from Schalke then, rather than getting him on a free upon the expiration of his contract this summer—as had been initially agreed.
Holtby's enthusiasm soon impressed his new fans. A no-nonsense footballer in respect to his commitment and passion, he augmented these characteristics with impressive flourishes of skill and a sound technical base.
Much of his first few months at Spurs were made up of cameos—some eye-catching, others nondescript—as he was used in various positions across midfield.
These unplanned few months may prove to have been very beneficial for player and club alike.
Neither have to worry about him integrating to a new playing style, environment and country—though the latter was not a massive issue as the 22-year-old has English parentage.
Holtby is well prepared here and can focus on competing for a first-team place.
The shape Villas-Boas has in mind for his midfield in 2013-14 will not be clear until at least during preseason, maybe later.
Given the effort Spurs put into bringing Holtby to the Premier League, you would assume he is going to be a big part of these plans now that he has had a chance to settle.
Villas-Boas has said little about Tom Carroll, making it hard to get an idea of his plans for the young midfielder.
This might be by design, so as to keep some pressure off him. Considering he made 14 appearances in all (including seven in the Premier League) last season, any public praising of the player may have brought some attention his manager thought he could do without.
Yet, when given his chances, Carroll impressed so much it was a wonder he did not feature more often.
Harry Redknapp had given the 21-year-old some first-team outings the previous year. Subsequently, this time around, he looked even more assured.
The extent to which Carroll's passing range may extend to has not yet become apparent. What has, though, is that he is already a clever user of the ball. Even more promisingly, he backs this up with an understanding of the importance of moving into space to receive the ball in the first place.
He was a baffling omission for the England Under-21 European Championship squad this summer. Especially given the lack of imagination in their play that has led to such a thorough self-examination of the English game.
After looking more than comfortable in games away at Arsenal and Basel, there is a school of thought (to which this writer certainly subscribes) that Spurs would also have fared better playing him, rather than some of his more experienced teammates.
Villas-Boas may prove to have been waiting for this season to truly give Carroll his chance. If he continues to overlook him, though, it will be a heck of a shame if this gem slips through Tottenham's fingers.
Tom Huddlestone reminded everyone of his quality with a match-winning contribution from the substitute bench against Manchester City.
On his day, there are fewer better passers of the ball in England, as he showed in this 3-1 win.
The trouble is, while this was slightly more substantial, generally Huddlestone's flashes of brilliance were just that—glimpses.
In fairness, being in and out of the team did not help him to develop any consistency here. Unfortunately, after missing the best part of two seasons, Tottenham's brand of football has developed into something that is too quick for his often languorous style.
Cruelly, prior to the onset of his injury problems in 2010, he was looking like he might develop into a more well-rounded player, one who could back up his tremendous passing with something more.
That moment seems to have passed him by. Compared to a Holtby or a Carroll, Huddlestone slows Spurs down too much.
The 26-year-old still has it in him to be the creative spark of a Premier League midfield. It just has to be one that is built around Huddlestone to accentuate his positives and make up for his more ponderous tendencies.
Jake Livermore has become the forgotten man of the Tottenham midfield after a season in which his stock fell dramatically.
An earnest and tidy, though unremarkable, midfielder, the 23-year-old went into 2012-13 as a useful player in the Spurs squad.
In Redknapp's flat four-man midfield, he had shown himself to be a reliable option to sit in alongside a more expansive partner.
Less helpful for Livermore this season, when started he was generally paired with Sandro or Parker. Though different players themselves, they were all marked by being less creative than Dembele or, previously, Modric.
As a result, somewhat unfairly, Livermore has been tagged a more "negative" player.
He did not help himself with some underwhelming showings along the way. After a particularly poor performance against Internazionale at the San Siro in March (though he was far from alone there), he did not feature again during the season.
Depending on if Villas-Boas brings in anyone to the Spurs midfield this summer, Livermore might be kept around as backup. From the manager's perspective, an energetic, young player who has played a few times already is not a bad option to have around.
For Livermore's own development, though, he surely has to move elsewhere. At a still formative point in his career, what he does in the next year or so may make the difference in just how good he becomes.