When Tottenham broke their transfer record on August 1, 2013, to sign Valencia’s prolific centre-forward Roberto Soldado, it seemed as if they had finally solved a five-year old problem.
Finally Spurs had signed a top-quality striker.
Since the sale of Dimitar Berbatov on deadline day in 2008, Spurs have not had a genuine No. 9. Peter Crouch scored some very important goals but lacked the necessary quality. Jermain Defoe was prolific as ever but has never possessed the versatility required to be a lone striker. Darren Bent was out of place, unwanted and ultimately out of his depth.
But despite a goalscoring debut and a European hat-trick in December, Soldado struggled. His defenders could point to his intelligent runs, his movement and his developing playmaking qualities, but as he continued to struggle, his enthusiasm waned and, by the final day of the season, he was an unused substitute.
With a new manager in place and a likely shake-up of playing style and personnel, should Tottenham persist with the Spaniard?
Soldado’s debut season was not a vintage one. For a striker used to scoring 20-plus goals every season, a paltry return of just 11 suggests as much. But it wasn’t quite as bad as it seems. Tottenham were, as a whole, very poor. In a team adjusting to new signings, the departure of Gareth Bale and the unwinding of Andre Villas-Boas' tenure, Soldado did not stand out as particularly poor.
When Tim Sherwood took over, he played his gambit by restoring Emmanuel Adebayor to the first team. It worked and so he continued to play it. Soldado featured far less in an improving team after Villas-Boas’ December dismissal.
Despite that, one of his most memorable moments came when he knocked Dejan Lovren aside and crossed for Christian Eriksen to equalise against Southampton, a match Spurs would go on to win. Of course, the manager on the losing side that day was Mauricio Pochettino, the new Spurs boss.
This moment will have left a lasting impression on Pochettino, but it was symbolic of an evolution of Soldado’s game across his first season. A player described as a single-minded goalscorer by David Cartlidge of The Mirror last August made five assists in his debut season. Delving deeper into those numbers, WhoScored.com’s Ali Tweedale wrote that those assists earned Spurs five points.
When Soldado’s confidence dropped, and when he suffered tragedy in his personal life, he was not the same robust player that he was at times throughout the season.
It is also crucial that Spurs learn from the mistakes of last season. Continuity is something that even a €100M warchest cannot buy. The introduction of a new manager and a new playing style is upheaval enough for one summer.
Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival makes it much more likely that Soldado will bounce back in his second season in England. Pochettino plays a high-energy game that emphasises pressing all over the pitch. Soldado showed against Southampton that he is capable of pressing and winning the ball back high up the pitch.
This style of football also sees the ball move much faster between the lines. That means Soldado is much more likely to get the ball in greater space, perhaps with an opportunity to shoot. A quick glance at his highlights demonstrates Soldado’s capacity to get on the end of a quick break or counter-attack. The ponderous, possession-heavy Tottenham of last season were not suited to bring the best out of Soldado. Pochettino’s Spurs are much more likely to be.
The other side of this argument is much simpler. Soldado did not score nearly enough goals to warrant his transfer fee and if, as reported by Jamie Anderson of The Daily Express, Inter Milan are interested in acquiring him, perhaps Spurs should take the money. But this transfer was never about turning a profit. Spurs’ buy-young, sell-high policy did not come into play when approaching Valencia about their then-28-year-old striker.
Roberto Soldado was a fantastic goalscorer in Spain and showed glimpses of his quality last season. This is not a Fernando Torres situation in which a player is physically incapable of returning to his former height. Soldado endured difficult circumstances and was playing for a team that was also well below its capacity. He suffered personal tragedy, which can't have helped his mindset, and he was left out when the team began to turn things around.
If Mauricio Pochettino is able to get Spurs playing his high-tempo style of football, Soldado will get plenty of chances to show that he was worth the money.