A funny thing happened when Tottenham Hotspur suffered the injury loss of their 2010-11 top goal-scorer in Rafael van de Vaart: they finally started scoring goals.
Spurs went two full games and 247 total minutes without recording a goal from an attacking player, as they fell, and fell hard, to both of Manchester's powerhouse sides. The one goal they did record while being outscored 8-1 in that stretch came from defender Younes Kaboul.
So what changed after the Dutchman was removed from the lineup after suffering a hamstring injury against Manchester City? Has he really lost so much of his ability to impact Tottenham's attacking game from last season that only his removal from the squad can result in success for the North London outfit?
Is Van der Vaart really that bad this year?
The answer, of course, is no, as Tottenham's newfound success was much more heavily attributed to the restructuring of Spurs' formation following his injury than it was his direct removal from the game. Rafael van der Vaart is not the problem with Tottenham's attacking strategy, the tactics surrounding him are.
Van der Vaart's skill set is a peculiar one, there's no doubt about it. He's clearly a proficient and creative shooter, but too much of a long range specialist to play full-forward. He's most effective playing back, behind a proper striker position, forcing the entire squad into a 4-4-1-1 to give his presence the most bang for its buck.
But the 4-4-1-1 has hardly been effective. At least not as effective as the 4-4-2 last Saturday against Wolves, or the formation that Spurs utilized in the majority of the 2009-10 season that saw them scoring impressive tallies of goals and finishing fourth in the league to earn Champions League football for their first time in history.
That's not to say that the 4-4-1-1 can't be effective. It did wonders for Tottenham in European matches last season, but saw the goal totals accumulated by strikers Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe suffer dramatically in EPL play.
And it has nothing to do with Van der Vaart's personal skill, either. Traditionally, it just hasn't resulted in compelling results with the personnel that Spurs have on hand. Neither Peter Crouch nor Jermain Defoe have thrived in a lone-striker type of role, and the final product was Spurs dropping out of the top four in 2010-11, and a horrific offensive start to 2011-12.
Until Van der Vaart's injury that is, which prompted Redknapp to restructure his formation to accommodate the Dutchman's absence, and play beautifully-organized 4-4-2 tactics once again.
The quality of play against Wolves far exceeded anything we've seen from Spurs so far this season, particularly within their attacking half. The partnership of Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe worked so effectively that many are already questioning Van der Vaart's future role on Tottenham's offense. And, of course, the future of the 4-4-1-1.
Still, it's a bit early to be making such predictions. Van der Vaart at full health is obviously not going to sit on the bench, and Harry Redknapp has probably not given up on the formation that seemingly comes hand-in-hand with his presence, either.
For one, it's important to note that Wolverhampton is leagues behind Manchester City and Manchester United, so defeating them on the road was far from an accurate indicator of how effective the 4-4-2 would truly be with the staff on hand.
But the most notable reason to avoid dropping the 4-4-1-1 off in the back-alley dumpster and letting it rot away is this: it could yet work for Spurs in ways that we've never imagined.
The problem with the formation thus far does not lie in an objective lack of inherent effectiveness, but rather in a lack of players, aside from Rafael van der Vaart, who can make it work. That's not to say that Defoe, Crouch, and Pavlyuchenko weren't talented forwards for Tottenham in 2010-11 and the opening stages of this season. They just didn't work particularly well in the tactics.
But now Spurs have another option: Emmanuel Adebayor, whose creativity and footwork (even what he's shown us so far) could make for a fantastic lone striker if Spurs revert back to their old habits. And he makes for a great target man in the box, too.
Essentially, he's Peter Crouch, except a little shorter, with a genuine sense of where the goal is, and with moves. And no head lice, as far as I've been able to tell.
Emmanuel Adebayor is entirely untested in Tottenham's 4-4-1-1 too, which is why Redknapp is almost guaranteed to give it another go at some point in the near future—probably either against Liverpool or the much weaker Wigan Athletic during the following week. He almost has no choice.
Even if the tactics remain ineffective with a truly remarkable striking presence up front for Tottenham, you can't blame Redknapp for trying (and he will try).
Of course, Spurs can't exactly treat this as a season of experimentation, given their fading hopes of achieving Champions League football once again to retain the likes of Luka Modric and attract more top talent to the club. If the 4-4-1-1 fails with Adebayor, it has to go. There's not much room (or time) for continuous adjusting to make it work. Not when they know they can win, even if only against lower opponents, in the 4-4-2.
And I'm not saying that it will work. I'm just saying that Harry is going to have to give it at least one more go before we all start screaming about how ineffective it is against Premier League competition.
If it works, then fantastic. Spurs will finally be firing on all cylinders and become the legitimate force in EPL that so many of us suspect they can be.
If not, then I'll be the first to demand that it gets buried deep in Harry's closet, never to be seen again.
And then we can all start wondering what to do with Rafael van der Vaart.
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