It’s hardly as if Benoit Assou-Ekotto is particularly easy to miss at the best of times at Tottenham Hotspur. But if there was ever any danger of the 28-year-old’s recent return to the team going unnoticed, then his typically blunt comments upon regaining full-fitness suggested that he’s certainly not lost any of his bite.
Ever the master of subtlety, the former Lens man certainly wasn’t mucking around when it was put to him whether fellow full-back Kyle Naughton offered much in the way of competition for the left-back berth.
“He’s not a real left-back,” mused Assou-Ekotto following the 1-1 draw with Manchester United last month.
“I don’t think he has the same left foot as me, so I’m not worried about that [being kept out the team].”
“I’m not worried because obviously I can do stuff with my left foot that he can’t do.”
To the neutral, such observations may well seem like the comments of a potentially volatile dressing-room ego, but for those who have followed his journey in North London, it’s simply par for the course.
Similarly to his now infamous comments about football not being his passion, Assou-Ekotto’s recent quips are more brutal honesty than callous disregard. After all, as a right-footed fullback playing on the left side out of necessity as much as anything else, of course Naughton can’t produce the sort of magic on his left as the cultured Assou-Ekotto can.
He’s certainly not pulling any punches, but following his near on four-month absence with a knee injury, it appears Assou-Ekotto means business upon his return to Andre Villas-Boas’ side. Although while statements of intent and no-nonsense attitudes are all very well, he needs to back it up with the performances, to boot.
And although supporters can’t realistically expect instant results after such a long spell of time on the sidelines, the former-Lens man is going to have to hit the ground running sooner, rather than later.
Spurs’ 2-1 FA Cup defeat to Leeds United last Sunday didn’t represent a realistic barometer for the side’s collective defensive efforts this term, but it certainly gave Villas-Boas some real food for thought.
Given Steven Caulker’s age and Jan Vertonghen’s status as a debutant in this league, it’s perhaps understandable that the pair aren’t looking like quite the defenders they were earlier on within the term. Yet while supporters can perhaps afford their central defensive unit a spot of patience, the same might not be able to be said for the club’s fullbacks.
The lack of depth at both right-back and left-back berths has been something of an Achilles heel for the club so far this season and although their lack of depth has been affected by circumstance as much as self-infliction, it’s something which must be addressed soon. Assou-Ekotto’s return could well be the remedy that helps them shuffle the pack for the better.
Alongside Younes Kaboul, Assou-Ekotto’s injury after three league games this season was the loss that sent the house of cards tumbling down. With no real, out-and-out left-back available to the club following the ex-Lens man’s injury, Villas-Boas was forced to push his central defensive rock in Jan Vertonghen out to left-back. As well as weakening the side through the middle, it also weakened the side out wide.
Yet the long-heralded solution of wheeling out Kyle Naughton at left-back has perhaps left the side with more questions than answers. Vertonghen may be no natural left-back, but it’s been difficult to see at times whether Naughton has really been anything nearing a step-up. Considering the ex-Sheffield United product is a right-back by nature, supporters have been keen to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But in returning to the side, Assou-Ekotto could potentially offer a short-term solution to the right side of defensive affairs, too. Kyle Walker’s troubles this season have been well documented, but for all his struggles to replicate his stunning form of last-season, there’s been little in the way of a ‘Plan B’ for Villas-Boas to utilize.
With Naughton now free to move back over into his natural position, now could be the time to take Walker out of the side. Whether Naughton has what it takes to pose a realistic threat to Walker in the long-term, only time will tell.
Although if Spurs are going to continue their push for Champions League qualification, they’ve got to start shoring things up at full-back and that has to start with a return to form for Benoit Assou-Ekotto. From what we’ve seen so far since his return, the Cameroon international is understandably a little rusty and after four months out, supporters would be naïve to expect an instantaneous return to form.
Yet while craving more than simply a return to full fitness might seem like it’s asking a lot from the man known as ‘Disco Benny,’ now’s the time for Spurs’ eccentric left-back to really stand up and be counted. Before he picked up his injury, Assou-Ekotto’s performances hardly set the world on fire and despite enjoying a generally good term last season, his form gradually seemed to erode away as the weeks went on.
Supporters need to see a fully fit Assou-Ekotto, but also a focused, mature and error-free left-back return to the side. He can’t shed the flair and the ball-playing nous, but with the club crying out for stability and experience in their back four, they can’t be treated to much more of the bizarre decision making, the cheap loss of possession and the other self-indulgent elements that adorn his game.
Tottenham Hotspur need Benoit Assou-Ekotto firing on all cylinders during the second half of the season. And perhaps to a lesser extent, for the sake of his White Hart Lane career, the player requires the same thing, too.