Old-fashioned & over 30: Do Villas-Boas' new-look Tottenham still need Scott Parker?

The 32-year-old made his first appearance in a Lilywhite shirt for seven months against Swansea on Sunday, but have the north London side outgrown their terrier-like midfielder?
By Ewan Roberts

From his 1950s side-parting to his blacked-out, sponsor-less boots, Scott Parker rarely seems like a player of the 21st century. Labelled a dying breed, a throwback to the Dave Mackays and Tommy Smiths of the past, the 32-year-old’s passionate, gritty performances saw him voted Tottenham’s player of the season last year.

But now the popular midfielder, who made his first appearance in seven months against Swansea, faces one of his toughest challenges: re-establishing his relevance in Spurs’ new-look side under recently appointed manager Andre Villas-Boas.

Parker sacrificed the first half of Tottenham’s latest campaign in order to take part in the European Championship with England over the summer, postponing surgery on an Achilles injury to travel to Poland and Ukraine.

Usually, injury to a player of Parker’s quality sees their importance to the side exaggerated and emphasised with every minute of action they miss (Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, for example, is a better player when he is not on the field), but the Charlton academy product’s absence has barely registered at White Hart Lane.

His return to action was greeted with a ripple of applause rather than the avalanche of cheers one might have expected, largely because of who he was replacing: Mousa Dembele. Out of the disaster of losing Parker to injury and Luka Modric to Real Madrid, an impressive central midfield partnership blossomed between the summer signing from Fulham and Brazilian destroyer Sandro.

The pair have become one of the league’s most dynamic and tenacious pairings, recording 174 combined tackles and interceptions. Solid, physical and robust, Tottenham’s core has never looked stronger. To break up such a successful pivot would be folly on the part of Spurs’ Portuguese boss.

There are question marks too over the extent to which Parker, sidelined since May and the wrong side of 30, can contribute within Villas-Boas’ high pressing side. Such a style requires energy and athleticism which Parker no longer possesses, certainly not for 90 minutes.

The former West Ham midfielder could be deployed alongside Sandro (though it is a combination that is a little too similar, offering little vision or technical ability, and which has rarely excelled in the past), with Dembele pushed further forward.

But that poses the question of whether it is better to shift the team solely to accommodate Parker, or stick with a line-up that has steered Spurs to fourth place in the table? Additionally, Dembele is a far greater influence and threat from deep than in the hole.

It is telling, however, that defensive midfielder Sandro has started all 17 of Spurs’ league games this season, as many as he started in the entirety of last season under then manager Harry Redknapp. While the new QPR boss extolled the virtues of his professional, hard-working veteran, the young Brazilian’s development stalled.

Equally, that hints at a lack of depth within Villas-Boas’ squad that Parker’s return will amend, and although he can appear pedestrian (especially compared to Spurs’ more youthful, bustling style), running on fumes within the first half hour of matches, he brings qualities currently missing from the side.

The most obvious is leadership; Tottenham have not had a captain in the truest sense of the word for many years. Ledley King was regularly absent, while Michael Dawson, who currently occupies the role, is regarded as Spurs’ fourth choice centre-back, spending more time warming the bench than organising the troops.

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As such, Villas-Boas has given more playing time to Brad Friedel and William Gallas – the latter has worn the armband more often than any other player this season – and has recognised the need to pepper his squad with experience. But the French defender’s style of leadership is more negative than Parker’s heroic, William Wallace-esque calls to arms.

“We recognise the importance of the player and rate him very highly,” said the Portuguese boss about his returning midfield general. “He offers us more possibilities, as well as experience and leadership.”

Tottenham have conceded more goals in the last 10 minutes of matches than any other side in the division, but coming on in stoppage time against Swansea, Parker assisted his team-mates in securing just their third clean sheet of the season. 

A vocal presence, an organiser, a communicator, Parker brings exactly the kind of blend of skills that Spurs have lacked when seeking to close out matches. It is off the bench, as an impact sub, a game killer, that Parker can make the most telling contribution, and he offers a steadier pair of hands in such a capacity than Tom Huddlestone or Jake Livermore.

Though Parker may no longer be the first name on the team sheet, he could yet have a part to play off the bench for Spurs, and can help shape the mentality and attitude, on the field and of it, of a young team that is still developing its identity. Whether such a role can sufficiently feed Parker's desire to play every minute and fight for every ball is another matter.

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