The Belgian has missed the last two fixtures and inadvertently reminded those concerned that a Modric-sized hole remains in the Spurs midfield and must be plugged in January
By Jay Jaffa
It had been coming. The transfer window madness that led to the inevitable departure of Luka Modric was expected. The sight of Rafael van der Vaart being whisked away in a black Range Rover was heart-breaking. As time crept towards the 11pm deadline on August 31, Joao Moutinho was headed to Tottenham... until complications arose and the deal was shelved.
Two months later, Porto's sublime playmaker looks set to move to PSG in the January window – another one that got away. And where does it leave Spurs? Well, Andre Villas-Boas has guided the north Londoners to fifth in the league, a first league win at Old Trafford in 23 years and (so far) proved a host of doubters wrong over his competence for Premier League management. And all without the playmaker he so desired.
But it still hasn't quite clicked. There was a glimmer at Old Trafford, at least for a half, before a more interlaced display against Aston Villa. The patented Villas-Boas system is in place and two months in, most of the squad understand their roles.
However, the loss of one of the finest players to wear the Lilywhite shirt and the most clinical finisher at the club has naturally piled more pressure on the less revered, less accomplished replacements – pressure that will only build as Spurs attempt once again to gatecrash the top four.
|11/8||Tottenham's clash with Southampton on Sunday is 11/8 with Bet365 to feature over three goals
One success story though, has been the signing of Fulham's Mousa Dembele, a crafty player who has added significant value to Tottenham's play this year. The Belgian is comfortable in possession, at home in the Spurs midfield after just two months – in itself, remarkable given he's only played the position for the best part of 12 months – and can, surprisingly, already lay claim to being one of the club's most important players.
In sizing his opponents up, forcing them to check their attempts to pressure him, before gliding past a dangling leg, Dembele has a rare quality that has impressed fans and pundits alike. But there is the nagging feeling that it would be better utilised slightly further up the field.
In Villas-Boas' 4-2-3-1, balance is key – most importantly the dynamism of the three central midfielders. At present it is clear one piece of the jigsaw is missing. Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson both have their uses but neither has looked capable or comfortable operating as the furthest forward of the trio.
Dembele, on the other hand, has yet to be tasked with the duty of supporting Jermain Defoe but, at least on paper, has the tools to do a more than acceptable job there. Where he falls down is the goalscoring department. The former Fulham man has never been prolific in England and even the four-year spell at AZ yielded a career high of just 10 league goals in a season.
That in the Eredivisie, a league Afonso Alves famously scored 48 goals in 48 games for Heerenveen before flopping spectacularly at Middlesbrough, is as damning as it comes.
He has shown glimpses though, such as the excellent skill and angled drive that opened his account for Spurs on his debut against Norwich. That one feint and shuffle onto his left was the first sight of what is now a trademark move – one that defenders know but seem powerless to stop. In time, the attacking midfield role behind the striker could be a better fit but that of course depends on Tottenham's activity in the market.
January is notoriously tough to complete deals, let alone high-profile big money signings for top-class talent. And with Daniel Levy conducting negotiations, Spurs fans have been accustomed to accepting caution over decadence.
But the average displays put together by the likes of Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore should further Villas-Boas' request for a playmaking midfielder.
With Sandro operating as the deepest of the three and Dembele further forward, able to put his supreme dribbling skills to use in far more dangerous areas, all that is missing is the man to link play together.
Replacing Modric was always going to be an impossible task. The Croatian is now plying his trade at Real Madrid after being courted by European champions Chelsea the year before, testament enough to his class. The mobile, dynamic, give-and-go style that he repeated over and over again at White Hart Lane weaved everything into the fluid style Spurs were famed for under Harry Redknapp. He was the elusive figure who could rarely be caught.
What Spurs have now – especially evident in the past two games against Chelsea and Maribor – is a static, functional midfield. Huddlestone, for all his majestic touches and his finely weighted passes, is a midfielder born in the wrong era. The modern game passes the giant Nottingham-born midfielder by; his cumbersome gait a giant noose around his neck. The 1960s would have embraced him, but in a system that relies on fluid interchanges, his time is limited.
Livermore is another to have found his game time severely limited since the departure of Redknapp, possibly due to an underwhelming pre-season. But neither midfielder has staked anything close to a legitimate claim to Dembele's midfield spot, and for the management concerned, they will hope it is clear to Levy as well.
It may seem early to discuss the next transfer window, but this is precisely the time the club should be approaching rivals, aiming to put the finishing touches to transfer deals.
For every minor victory for brinkmanship there is a story of a lost deal, a player who slipped through the net. If the club are to genuinely realise Villas-Boas' ambitions and back him in the market, it must be sooner rather than later.
The identity of Villas-Boas' second choice is nearly impossible to gauge. Kevin Strootman, Yann M'Vila and Willian all fit the bill but all come with their own caveats.
Yet, the biggest caveat as far as many of the club's supporters are concerned, is whether Levy is willing to dip into the coffers and present the playmaker needed to push Spurs back into the Champions League.