Rafael van der Vaart is fast becoming a legend at White Hart Lane.
In his three appearances in the North London derby, he has yet to be on the losing side, scored four goals and drawn the fury of the Arsenal fans by openly celebrating his goals in front of the away end.
Last Sunday, after scoring a fine opener in the 2-1 win over Arsenal, he was replaced in the 63rd minute by manager Harry Redknapp. This was a response to a 20-minute spell in which Arsenal had equalised and threatened to go on and win the game.
As he left the pitch to a standing ovation, you sensed an annoyance from Van der Vaart that he would not see out the rest of the game. So where does that leave a player who has 90 international caps to his name and could command a place in the majority of top European clubs?
A True Bargain?
Van der Vaart was a cheeky acquisition on the final day of last summer’s transfer window. Real Madrid, having added Mesut Ozil to their ranks, looked unlikely to include Van der Vaart in their UEFA Champions League squad for the coming season.
Tottenham reacted quickly to secure an experienced International and Champions League player at a knock-down price, believed to be in the region of £8m.
Any concerns of Van der Vaart needing time to adjust to the Premier League were banished after some energetic and passionate displays that included match-winning performances against Wolves and Aston Villa.
He struck up an immediate partnership with Peter Crouch, flourishing on the knockdowns from the tall England striker scoring crucial goals, both domestically and in the Champions League.
He finished the season as top scorer with 13 goals despite a dip in both his and Tottenham's form in the closing stages of the season.
That Van der Vaart was top scorer in a team that boasted strikers like Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Robbie Keane highlighted Tottenham's main problem last season: scoring goals.
An explanation for this was the 4-5-1 formation favoured by Redknapp. This allowed the inclusion of speedy wingers Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale whilst accommodating the Van der Vaart/Crouch partnership.
However, Crouch had a frustrating season in front of goal in the Premier League, netting just four times. Away from the strikers, the only midfielder to score more than three league goals was Bale.
All Change at the Lane
Over the summer Harry Redknapp sought to resolve the goal-scoring issue.
Out went both Crouch and Keane, with Emmanuel Adebayor arriving on loan from Manchester City. Redknapp also indicated his preference for playing two strikers with the rejuvenated Defoe partnering Adebayor.
This season Van der Vaart has found himself on the right side of a four-man midfield. By no means a natural winger, Van der Vaart often gets drawn into the middle of the park—frequently with positive results—but this does disrupt the team’s balance.
This is most evident when Tottenham lose possession. Against Arsenal, Tottenham's young right back, Kyle Walker, was often outnumbered when Van der Vaart was out of position. This resulted in Arsenal's equaliser as Van der Vaart failed to stop Alex Song getting to the by-line to cross for Aaron Ramsey.
Within 15 minutes Van der Vaart was off, replaced by defensive midfielder Sandro, allowing the more disciplined Luka Modric to fill the right side of midfield.
Tottenham quickly regained their shape and rarely looked exposed down their right side for the rest of the match.
All this leaves Redknapp with what is known in the business as a nice headache. Without doubt, Van der Vaart is one of Tottenham's best technical players; he also displays a passion for the game, his teammates and the club as a whole.
But can Redknapp accommodate his talent without upsetting the balance of the team?
A Possible Solution
I think it is right for Tottenham to start with two strikers home and away. The midfield pairing of Scott Parker and Modric is developing well, with Sandro and Tom Huddlestone able deputies. Gareth Bale is a nailed on starter if fit, and most probably the improving Andros Townsend or Giovanni Dos Santos will act as cover if need be.
That leaves the right side of midfield as Van der Vaart’s most likely starting position. This ties in with usual right winger Aaron Lennon struggling to fulfil his potential through a combination of injuries and failure to improve his decision-making in the final third of the pitch.
One headache has been solved, but I'll leave it up to Redknapp and his coaching staff to persuade the swashbuckling Van der Vaart to work on the defensive side of his game.
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