Tottenham Hotspur: Defending Spurs Captain Michael Dawson

Thomas CooperFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2014

Back in April 2008, Tottenham Hotspur were in the middle of an underwhelming conclusion to their Premier League campaign. Stuck in post-League Cup final success doldrums, they played out a largely unmemorable 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough.

It stands out to this writer, though, because it was one of the best displays a then 24-year-old Michael Dawson had put in wearing a Tottenham shirt.

The north London club were battered by Boro' in the second half. Stewart Downing equalised and, but for some committed defending from Dawson in particular—throwing himself at just about everything the away side offered—it could have easily ended in defeat for Spurs.

This performance was also notable as it served in part to undermine a notion held at the time, that Dawson's teammate and centre-back partner in that game, Jonathan Woodgate, was the superior defender.

In the present, Dawson is again on the unfavourable side of comparisons with fellow centre-backs, this time in the form of his omission from the latest England squad. While six years ago there was more logic behind the naysayers' reasoning, now the thinking is more questionable.

Dawson, like several of his teammates, had begun 2007-08 poorly. Manager Martin Jol was sacked in October, replaced by Juande Ramos.

A fine showing alongside Ledley King in the 5-1 semi-final second-leg defeat of Arsenal gave way to the heartbreak of missing the final through injury. In his place, Woodgate scored the winner and put in a heroic shift alongside King.

Woodgate at his best was an assured presence at the back and a fine all-round competitor. His greater experience often saw him selected ahead of Dawson over the next year or so, with the latter, as Ramos recently put it in an interview with the Guardian's Sid Lowe, "still just a kid."

What that Middlesbrough game showed, though, was a quality that—albeit hastened by Woodgate's problems with injuries—was eventually to prove telling in the battle between the two.

Dawson was happier doing the dirty work that is vital to the health of any successful defence, essentially sacrificing your body for the cause of stopping goals (Woodgate was and, now back with former club Boro', is far from soft, just wired differently as a defender).

Dawson has matured into a better all-round defender since then, an evaluation backed up by his contributions in two of Tottenham's strongest campaigns in recent years—the successful Champions League qualification chase in 2009-10 and last season's record Premier League points haul. He's also currently enjoying a good campaign with the fifth-placed side, who on Thursday progressed into the last 16 of the Europa League.

As club captain, he continues to lead Spurs passionately and bravely, and he has (bar his unavoidable joint-culpability in some notable team implosions) mostly defended impeccably.

The bright recent performance of Younes Kaboul and Jan Vertonghen in central defence in the win over Newcastle United has hinted at another possible direction for Spurs in the position. Even then, Dawson has embraced the competition that has been a fixture of his competitive life at White Hart Lane:

"We’ve top players who want to play, so competition is high and you know you have to perform well to stay in the team," Dawson told Tottenham's official website in early February.

"We all want the game time and we’re all pushing each other."

Considering all this, it is puzzling why he has again been overlooked by Roy Hodgson for England.

There is no strict selection criteria, of course, and it should never be just about selecting players who play for the best teams. Hodgson will be mindful of what is his best centre-back partnership for this summer's World Cup, but he will also have an eye on beyond the tournament.

With Phil Jagielka out through injury, Steven Caulker's selection, along with the versatile Chris Smalling and regular starter Gary Cahill, is in keeping with thinking on both fronts. The latter has been performing well for a strong Chelsea side this year, but it is hard to justify why Caulker and Smalling are regarded as better picks than Dawson.

Dawson's lack of pace is often identified as his main failing and, indeed, it can be exposed. Compared to the aforementioned pair, though, he is bolder in his defending and far less liable to lapses in concentration.

Both Smalling and Caulker have it in them to become top class centre-backs.

The former Spurs man has had an especially challenging year, playing in a Cardiff City team who seem to have given up on defending. He was poor in last weekend's 4-0 loss to Hull City, but those around him were arguably worse. Smalling is likely to benefit from the departure of Nemanja Vidic from Manchester United this summer.

Right now, though, it is hard to argue either being a better bet for England. If nothing else, Dawson would be a sensible and solid backup for Cahill for the remainder of this tournament cycle.

The Spurs skipper comes up against Caulker on Sunday when Cardiff visit White Hart Lane.

Caulker moved on in part because of his ex-teammate's return to prominence at Spurs. While getting the Bluebirds back on track, he will be looking to prove it was the wrong decision to sell him.

For Dawson, it is another opportunity for him to prove he holds up against all but the very toughest comparisons.


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