Anyone who follows Tottenham Hotspur closely will have been familiar with the name Nabil Bentaleb. Most, though, will not have been too aware of the player's qualities prior to his recent promotion to first-team duty.
An article on Tottenham's official website following the Frenchman's debut versus Southampton last month recalled how Bentaleb joined the club's "academy after a successful trial in January, 2012 and has gone from strength to strength, making 14 appearances for our Under-21s last season and captaining the team this time around."
Only turning 19 in November, the midfielder's involvement early in this past pre-season hinted at high hopes for his development from the management. Mentioning him in a report on Spurs' 0-0 draw with Colchester United, this writer described how the second-half substitute "used the ball sensibly, growing into the game as it progressed" from his wide position.
With Spurs possessing a number of options in central midfield, few (if any) expected Bentaleb seeing much involvement this season beyond making up the numbers on the substitute bench.
The absence of players like Sandro and Paulinho through injury and suspension, coupled with the appointment of a manager well-versed in his progression, has seen Bentaleb get his chance earlier than anticipated. Though as shown by the subsequent quality of his performances, not undeservedly.
"He’s a top player and ready to play. I knew he was ready," Tim Sherwood told TottenhamHotspur.com following Spurs' 3-2 win at St. Mary's just prior to Christmas. "If I don’t think they (the younger players) are ready, they won’t even be on the bench.
"I was convinced he wasn’t going to be fazed and give us a performance of energy and responsibility."
Sherwood also talked about how "at times, he was the one who took the sting out of the game, passed it back and to the side." Seeing that composure and intelligence of play undoubtedly informed the newly installed head coach's decision to begin handing Bentaleb more playing time.
After steady substitute appearances versus West Bromwich Albion and Manchester United, the youngster was rewarded with a start against Arsenal in the FA Cup third round. Selected ahead of the more defensively minded Etienne Capoue, Bentaleb's involvement in that game and the subsequent 2-0 win over Crystal Palace have raised questions about the direction of the Spurs midfield moving forward (more on which later).
Statistics website Squawka was certainly enthusiastic in its praise of Bentaleb's display versus the Eagles:
Continuing his burgeoning midfield partnership with Mousa Dembele, Bentaleb played like a man growing accustomed to his newfound responsibilities, with the aforementioned passing indicative of his increasing confidence (notably a flashy double backheel he and Dembele engaged in just inside their own half with 10 minutes remaining).
Following a start in which Palace had threatened to overwhelm Spurs, he was as responsible as any of his teammates—if not more so—for them getting a foothold in the game. Though not always eye-catching, his succinct and accurate passing allowed the team to develop some rhythm and more purposeful passages of play.
Spurs needed something to wake them from their initial stupor, and Bentaleb's two long-range efforts (one well-saved by Julian Speroni, the other rebounding off the post and across the line) certainly helped too.
Bentaleb was there to cover for Dembele on one first-half occasion, showing awareness and determination in helping regain the ball. After the interval, he tracked back to help Kyle Naughton and Michael Dawson dispossess Yannick Bolasie. Defensively, it was his most impressive showing so far.
Squawka's assessment Bentaleb "bossed the middle of midfield" was a little distorted, however.
He and his fellow midfielders initially struggled to stop their Palace counterparts advancing and breaking beyond them. Indeed, Bentaleb was culpable for one such attack half an hour in when his misplaced pass allowed Marouane Chamakh to burst forward dangerously, only for the forward to waste his attempted final ball.
There were undoubted signs of progression from Bentaleb here compared to his first full start versus Arsenal, where he gave away four fouls and completed only one tackle (source: TottenhamHotspur.com). Still, Spurs were still a little too exposed at times in central positions to claim Bentaleb, or anyone for that matter, had full control of the flow of this game.
As noted earlier in the article, Bentaleb's emergence does raise questions about what Sherwood does with his midfield from here on out.
The teenager has done enough to earn another start away at Swansea City this weekend. However, his struggles in keeping pace with the quality opponents he faced versus Arsenal will give Sherwood pause for thought in identifying if he should play against Manchester City's similarly effective practitioners of the midfield arts.
Sherwood and Spurs' wider strategical approach, and Bentaleb's involvement in it, will make for an intriguing watch over the coming weeks. For now, as his teammate Dembele put it following Saturday's match:
Bentaleb has the right to reflect happily on his progress so far. Further focus will be required though, as more challenges await for this promising young midfielder.