Tottenham’s chances of progressing to the semi-final stage of this season’s Champions League are minimal following a determined ten-man performance in Madrid which ultimately ended in humiliation. Captain, Michael Dawson, revealed that Peter Crouch, the striker whose two early challenges saw him dismissed within 15minutes, has apologised to his team-mates and conceded that, “we went out there to give our all and it didn’t go to plan.” Crouch’s exit not only left his side with a numerical inferiority, but also demonstrated a tactical conundrum that is troubling a number of Spurs fans.
It was difficult for the Lilywhites to create anything that was not a result of Gareth Bale’s ingenuity, and struggled without an offensive target until van der Vaart was replaced by Jermain Defoe in the second-half. Although the nature of the tie has been significantly altered by the premature removal of Crouch, and perhaps Tottenham’s midfield would have been afforded greater freedom to be creative in Crouch’s presence, the first-leg at the Bernabeu raised a few questions about Spurs’ best formation for deploying van der Vaart and Modric whilst also incorporating Bale.
I’m not saying Harry Redknapp faces a dilemma on the scale of Lampard and Gerrard – which has somehow existed as a scapegoat for most of England’s disappointments since the turn of the century – but Tottenham do seem to perform better when Modric is positioned deeper and van der Vaart is allowed the freedom behind a striker. The best example of this is perhaps the 3-1 defeat of Internazionale last November when Modric was allowed considerable time and space on the ball and was able to control possession as well as instigate attacks.
It isn’t always easy for an offensive-minded player to restrict their innovation, but the Croatian’s discipline in the role was creditable, and it is worth mentioning that it was his run from deep that created the first goal. Modric’s inventive dummy was followed by a precise through-ball for van der Vaart, who finished emphatically. The move was only able to encourage a chance for the Dutchman due to the venture forward from Modric, as once his side-step got him past the Inter midfield, one of the central defenders was forced to step forward, which allowed van Der Vaart the room to unleash a shot at goal.
Following his first ever Spurs training session last September, van der Vaart in fact singled out Modric for special praise, saying, “you can always play good players together, and today it was nice to play with Modric, for example. He’s a good player.” What’s more, Modric has recently praised the impact van der Vaart has made during his seven months at White Hart Lane, and proclaimed, “Rafael’s arrival has given us great motivation, he’s proven to be a really great player. We were playing well before we bought him, but since he arrived we have started playing better.”
I personally don’t believe Tottenham have any significant strategic concern regarding two of their most valuable assets. Barcelona are proof that a team of offensive players can work efficiently in tandem, and Harry Redknapp will possibly look at the Iniesta-Xavi axis as inspiration for positioning his two stars. It is believed that van der Vaart’s exceptional displays in his first season at Spurs are largely a result of the freedom Redknapp provides his most creative players, and the Dutchman has previously conceded as much. With Sandro beginning to instill confidence in his abilities with the Spurs supporters and Tom Huddlestone soon to return from injury, Tottenham can afford to allow Modric and van der Vaart to roam in the opposition half because undoubtedly, this partnership could be the difference between Champions League and Europa League qualification with just eight Premier League games remaining.