Having essentially admitted that the purchase of Rafael van der Vaart was a transfer deadline day whim, it has been interesting to see how Harry Redknapp has tried to accommodate the Dutchman in his team. Spurs’ success last season was built on a fairly classic 4-4-2 formation, with dashing wingers on either side and a big-man-little-man combination in attack. Redknapp conceded over the summer that the same system would likely prove too naïve and inflexible for the demands of the Champions League, so van der Vaart’s arrival can also be seen as a recognition of the need for greater subtlety and sophistication in Tottenham’s attacking approach.
Van der Vaart has started three Premier League games since his move from Real Madrid – a 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion, a 3-1 win at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at West Ham United. In the games at West Brom and West Ham he played as the central playmaker in a 4-2-3-1, with Aaron Lennon on his right, Luka Modrić on his left and either Roman Pavlyuchenko (at West Brom) or Peter Crouch (at West Ham) up front. Against Wolves the shape was slightly different. In Lennon’s absence, van der Vaart played from the right, with Gareth Bale on the left and Robbie Keane playing off Crouch in the centre.
“Van der Vaart was, if you like, a bit part player at Real Madrid. He wasn’t in the team, he was on the bench and his confidence was low,” Redknapp told CNN this week. “He’s come here and we’ve made him feel very important. He’s a key player in our team and we base a lot of our game around how he plays and where we play him.”
It’s impossible to draw any hard and fast conclusions from van der Vaart’s first three league appearances, but his presence in the team does appear to make Spurs pass the ball better. The following statistics (courtesy of Guardian Chalkboards) compare Tottenham’s pass completion ratios with and without van der Vaart in the team:
Without van der Vaart
Tottenham 0-0 Manchester City (August 14)
– Passes attempted/completed: 331/261 (78.85%)
Stoke City 1-2 Tottenham (August 21)
– 374/316 (84.49%)
Tottenham 0-1 Wigan Athletic (August 28)
– 444/373 (84%)
Average pass completion: 82.47%
With van der Vaart
West Brom 1-1 Tottenham (September 11)
– Passes attempted/completed: 423/369 (87.23%)
Tottenham 3-1 v Wolves (September 18)
– 387/339 (87.60%)
West Ham 1-0 Tottenham (September 25)
– 467/420 (89.93%)
Average pass completion: 88.25%
With van der Vaart in the side, Tottenham’s average pass completion ratio has improved by almost six percent. Their ability to control possession, however, has remained fairly consistent. Over the first three games of the season, Spurs averaged 53.67 percent of possession. In their last three games, that figure has risen to 60.67 percent, but the opening three matches included a stern test at home to City (in which Spurs saw just 39 percent of the ball) and a difficult trip to Stoke. Drawing very broad conclusions, van der Vaart doesn’t seem to have helped Spurs enjoy more possession of the ball, but they have looked after it slighly better when he has been in the team.
Another aspect of Spurs’ play that van der Vaart appears to have improved is their control of the ball in central areas of the attacking third. The diagram below contrasts Tottenham’s passing from the 2-1 win at Stoke and the 1-0 defeat at West Ham. Clearly the games were very different – Spurs could afford to sit back more after taking the lead for the second time in the 30th minute against Stoke, whereas they were obliged to attack until the very end against West Ham – but it does suggest that van der Vaart helps his team maintain a higher attacking line while in possession.
Van der Vaart’s heat map from the game at West Ham (pinched from ESPN Soccernet) shows that it was precisely in these advanced, central areas that the Dutchman exerted most influence:
“He’s different class, the way he plays off the front man – he finds little pockets and just picks up the ball,” said Crouch after scoring from a van der Vaart cross in Spurs’ 2-2 draw at Werder Bremen in the Champions League. “He goes quite deep, he’s a fantastic player and is similar to Modrić. He picks up possession and creates things from nothing. It’s a pleasure to play with players like that.”
Plenty of observers have already been impressed by van der Vaart’s vision, touch and finesse. The challenge facing him now is to vindicate Redknapp’s decision to restructure his entire tactical philosophy around a single player.