The decision to play Nabil Bentaleb was one of the sticks often used to beat former Tottenham Hotspur manager Tim Sherwood with.
Brought on in Sherwood's first Premier League game in charge last December—as it happens, a 3-2 win over Mauricio Pochettino's Southampton—Bentaleb became a fixture in the team for the next three months.
Tottenham supporters were divided by the use of the teenager, with the view he was erroneously being used ahead of more experienced midfielders (Lewis Holtby for instance, who Sherwood allowed to leave on loan) a common one. The notion Bentaleb being favoured by his manager (who knew him well from his previous work with the development squad) was undeserved was typified by a disgruntled fan changing the player's name on his Wikipedia page to "Nabil Bentaleb-Sherwood," via 101GreatGoals.com.
Sherwood undoubtedly made mistakes as Spurs boss. Bentaleb was not one of them.
On a couple of occasions early in the player's run he did persevere with Bentaleb when resting him for a game or two might have been best for the youngster and the team. Sherwood did eventually take that action in early April, admitting to the Tottenham & Wood Green Journal's Ben Pearce "I’ve protected him by taking him out of the spotlight."
However, while clearly a work in progress, Bentaleb was never out of his depth as some suggested—indeed, he actually rather impressed in a number of games, notably in this writer's mind at home to Crystal Palace and Benfica away—and is now benefiting from the early opportunity to play.
After a quietly impressive World Cup with Algeria this summer, Bentaleb has started all three of Tottenham's matches so far this season. He played particularly well in Sunday's 4-0 thrashing of Queens Park Rangers.
His current manager Pochettino was somewhat limited for the season opener versus West Ham United by Mousa Dembele and Paulinho still working towards match fitness after their later World Cup returns. Yet, the choice to select the 19-year-old ahead of the more experienced Holtby and Sandro at various points already, suggests he shares Sherwood's belief in his ability (though in Sandro's case, his absence has also been influenced by the selection of Etienne Capoue).
Against QPR, Bentaleb demonstrated areas in which he has made progress. His display also acknowledged a couple of things he will still want to work on.
The positive was the increasing prominence of an all-round midfield game Sherwood foresaw coming forth in the aforementioned Journal piece.
For Nacer Chadli's opening goal it was Bentaleb who brought the ball forward and passed to Emmanuel Adebayor after Christian Eriksen had out-muscled Loic Remy in the centre-circle. The Algerian was not subsequently needed as his Togolese and Belgian team-mates successfully combined, but still carried his run on into the box just in case.
Bentaleb played a big part in the greater connectivity shown between Tottenham's chief attacking quartet and those behind them. He chose his moments to get forward well—such as the above described goal, and an attack he instigated 30 minutes in and subsequently rejoined to finish, having his shot blocked—and provided solid support from deep.
The latter was seen in some good forward passes for Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela. But also in the job he and Capoue did filling pockets of space further back, both to provide passing options and stymie attempted QPR attacks.
Bentaleb pass completion rate for his hour's work—via Squawka—finished at a respectable 87 per cent. It might have been even better, but for a few rushed and panicked attempts.
Seven minutes into the second-half he was back helping Danny Rose at left-back. With the full-back marked, Bentaleb came inside and his attempted pass was intercepted. Earlier, shortly after the half-hour mark there was another telegraphed pass, though on that occasion he quickly helped regain possession.
Such mistakes happen, of course, especially in a division as hectic as the Premier League. Still, finding a little more calm in his game will only aid his attempts to become a key part of the Spurs midfield.
Pochettino wisely withdrew his young midfielder on Sunday with an hour played and Spurs 3-0 up. After playing the full 90 minutes against both West Ham and Limassol, he deserved the rest.
So far, Bentaleb has responded well to every challenge posed to him in his fledgling career. Shaking off the summer's rust, his form appears to be steadily picking up this season. However, like the team itself, he faces tougher test to come.
This week, Liverpool visit White Hart Lane following a quick turnaround for Spurs from Thursday's Europa League qualifier second-leg. If they are to do better this season, Bentaleb and his team-mates will need to improve on their woeful record against top-four opponents from last season
The signs are Pochettino is going to give Bentaleb every opportunity to assert himself in the Tottenham side. If he carries on progressing at the rate he has, he could well do so sooner rather than later.
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