They say that you don’t know what you have, until it’s gone. Tottenham Hotspur fans are lucky to lay claim to one of the most talented squads in the Premier League, but if you were to ask them who the most gifted of their players were, the likes of Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart would stand out from the rest.
But there was one man whose absence from the team last term, arguably hurt Spurs more than any of his more naturally gifted teammates. When Aaron Lennon went missing last term, so did Tottenham.
Whilst there was a whole catalogue of reasoning behind the now infamous implosion of their 10-point lead over Arsenal, Spurs simply didn’t look like the same team without the mercurial winger. His form can be erratic and his game isn’t without faults, but Aaron Lennon has been one of Tottenham’s most important players over the past four years.
But as the swashbuckling set-up of Harry Redknapp makes way for the more continentally refined style of Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham’s game is set to evolve. The challenge for Lennon is going to be adapting to change and it could be time for the former Leeds prodigy to finally take his game to the next level.
Fans of other clubs often find it difficult to understand what all the fuss is about with Aaron Lennon. Despite playing nearly 200 league games for Spurs and going to two World Cups at the age of only 25, it feels as if he is still something of a misunderstood quantity. The likes of Theo Walcott and Ashley Young seem to have a much higher profile, but that doesn’t necessarily transcend into some massive disparity in ability.
Lennon’s qualities as a footballer have always been clear to see since he first broke onto the scene as a fledgling youngster under Martin Jol’s stewardship. The key component of his game is of course, his almost unnatural acceleration and searing pace. He is surely amongst the quickest players in the Premier League, employing his trademark direct style to run fullbacks and defenders ragged.
It’s been said that Lennon’s game is somewhat predictable and that he’s something of a one-trick pony. In some respects, that sentiment rings true; he’s always going to take on the fullback and he’s always usually going to go one way. But the point is, that it doesn’t really matter. Nine times out of ten, Lennon does beat his man and he does put a decent ball in. His perceived inability to put a final ball in has become something of an urban myth and seven assists in a disjointed 23 appearances last season goes some distance to dispelling this.
His lack of goal scoring ability, however, is something that has always seemed to count against him and it goes someway to explaining his slightly lower profile. Walcott and Young will always chime in with a few more goals and this is something Lennon must start bringing to the fore. A tendency to float in and out of games has drove Spurs fan up the wall over the years and his positional sense can still be questionable.
But you can argue that Lennon’s value to his team than what either Walcott or Young are at Arsenal and Manchester United. Balance is such an underrated value in football but that is exactly what Lennon brings to Tottenham and its importance cannot be underplayed. The team plays a far more natural game and his sheer presence alone, opens space for his teammates.
When Lennon was struck down by muscular issue last term, an unfortunate feature of his career so far, Spurs failed to cope with the changed dynamic in the side. Of course, when a team is defined by wing play, as Redknapp’s was with Bale and Lennon acting as the catalysts, they were always going to suffer. But the scale of their struggles was perhaps beyond most people’s expectations. Lennon missed much of the Christmas programme through injury, but it was his absence during the second part of the season in which Spurs really struggled. Both Bale and Van der Vaart tried and failed to fill in for Tottenham’s number seven and results reflected this.
The injury troubles of recent years haven’t helped Lennon’s progress and it feels as if whenever he seems to hit a glorious run of games, some form of groin or hamstring trouble instantly interrupts his season. Although Tottenham fans appreciate what he brings to the team and even his talents might not be quite so appreciated on a national level, he’s not short of affection at White Hart Lane.
Next season will be Lennon’s eighth at the football club but it could also be his most important. After four years of familiarity and success in Harry Redknapp’s 4-4-1-1 line-up, Andre Villas-Boas is set to change the very make up of this Tottenham side. And Lennon could find that any absence he might make from the starting XI won’t be missed as much as that of times gone by.
If Villas-Boas does indeed go with the 4-2-3-1 he’s been harnessing in pre-season, then Lennon is going to have to adapt his game. The new system sees a step away from archetypal wing play; the two who play on the flanks of the three behind the striker need to operate in the like of an inside forward, a la Hulk at Porto. Obviously Hulk is a unique example, but be it a 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1, the attacking trio must be fluid and encompass a broad attacking skillset.
Lennon’s pace will see him as an asset in any team, but in this new set-up, he will have to contribute more. His movement will have to be cleverer and he’s going to be under far more pressure to get on the score sheet.
Aaron Lennon got the tools to step up to the plate next season. But it feels as if it has to be the one in which he finally moves up an extra gear in performance. How he copes with that will be crucial for Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham but most poignantly, the player himself.
How do you feel about Aaron Lennon’s prospects for the new season? Optimistic he can push on or worried about injury woe and inconsistent form? Let me know what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me all your Tottenham views.