They say you don’t always know what you’ve got until it’s gone and although Tottenham Hotspur fans never doubted the significance of Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s role in this team, it’s fair to say that relations between support and cult hero became slightly strained at the start of the term.
Since solidifying himself as Spurs’ number one left-back in 2008, Assou-Ekotto’s eccentric style, both on and off the pitch, has helped develop a unique rapport with the White Hart Lane faithful.
But while those eccentricities have served him well in many respects, they’ve also tested supporters’ nerve on more than one occasion and while it’s difficult to gauge how much a subsequent knee injury was hindering his performances, his start to season left an awful lot to be desired.
While his calmness in possession and desire to retain the ball are two of the Cameroon international’s most vaulted traits, they can so often act as his Achilles heel, too. When everything clicks in this Tottenham first XI, the feints, stepovers and one touch passes on the byline are a joy to watch. But when the concentration wavers, the marking goes astray and the distribution becomes scattergun, Assou-Ekotto can resemble a mind-blowingly frustrating outlet.
And while his performances during the first three games of the term were far from the worst we’ve seen him during his time in N17, they were some way off the standard that we know he’s capable of hitting. For whatever reason, Disco Benny simply didn’t seem at the races.
An injury to any first team player should be greeted with nothing but universal condemnation, but at the time with Assou-Ekotto, there was a feeling that a short spell out might not necessarily be the end of the world. After all, it was only supposed to be a short term injury and with Jan Vertonghen ready to display his expertise on the left hand side, it could have been the kick up the backside the ex-Lens man needed.
The ramifications of Assou-Ekotto’s loss to this Tottenham side however, have been far more hard-hitting than perhaps many could have possibly envisaged back at the start of September.
Switching Jan Vertonghen out to the left hand side was initially heralded as something of a boost to Andre Villas-Boas’ side. As Spurs began picking up points in September, Vertonghen was a box-office hit rampaging down the left hand side, with his performance in the 3-2 win against Manchester United a particular highlight.
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But the subsequent hole that’s been left in the centre of their defense has been toxic in its gaping size. William Gallas has so often been the focal point of unfair critique this term, but even the most fervent of supporters would be alarmed at the Frenchman’s regression in his performances this season. The fledgling Steven Caulker is an immensely talented youngster who will surely enjoy a fantastic future at the club. But for all his talent, asking him to play every game and provide the anchor for a developing side’s top four challenge, was a massive ask and that’s began to show in recent games.
While Michael Dawson’s hamstring injury should have perhaps come after several more first team appearances, Jan Vertonghen is needed back in the centre. But more than just providing a knock-on effect, it’s been the eclectic skillset of Assou-Ekotto himself, that Tottenham have really missed.
For all the industry and sensibility that Vertonghen can provide on the left-hand side, he simply doesn’t have the natural gifts at full-back that Assou-Ekotto can provide.
Yes, the nature of Assou-Ekotto’s gifts mean that when things do go awry, they will always look worse than that of the more conventional full-back. But a fully-fit, fully-firing and fully-focused Disco Benny, is one of the greatest assets that this Spurs side bestows.
First and foremost he offers natural balance and also width on the left hand side. Jan Vertonghen is adept in the role, as we’ve seen for Ajax, Belgium and now Spurs, too. But everything from the build of Assou-Ekotto to his natural instincts, he’s an undeniably better fit in the berth. Vertonghen can play at left-back, but he isn’t one by right.
His strongest assets are of course on the ball and given the style of football Villas-Boas has looked to implement at White Hart Lane, Assou-Ekotto should fit back seamlessly into this Spurs back four. The Cameroonian will prove a good foil for Hugo Lloris now he finally appears to have made the goalkeeping spot his own, with the teams credentials for building from the back only boosted.
A recovering Gareth Bale will also be happy to see Assou-Ekotto return. Such has been the success of the duo down that left hand side, it’s easy to take for granted the way in which they compliment each other. Bale’s rise to prominence hardly owes him a debt of gratitude, but Assou-Ekotto’s been a permanent presence in the Welshman’s ascent to the top of the game.
Ultimately though, it’s his defensive gifts that Spurs have also been crying out for. The stem of much of the criticism he often receives, often revolves around his mental attributes, and the ability to concentrate gaffe-free over 90 minutes. But his positional sense, reading of the game and experience in the role, are all vastly underrated elements of his skillset. When he brings his A-game with him, there are few better in this division.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto is not without his faults and in the long term, perhaps the acquisition of a competitor is the only way Tottenham are going to be able to keep him on his toes and stave off complacency. But with the news that he’s now returned to first team training, it won’t be long before fans are dancing to the tune of Disco Benny once more. And it can’t come another week too soon.