English football is currently amid a wave of Bale-mania. The Welsh wonder is in the middle of his best season to date, with 16 goals in 26 Premier League appearances for Tottenham Hotspur, leading to the wide-spread and ongoing discussion throughout the campaign whether or not the 23 year old is “world class”. Of course, the definition of “world class” is always open to interpretation, but it appears on the most part that pundits, journalists and opinionated football fans are using the term to compare Bale’s ability to that of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Neither the less, almost anyone who isn’t a Spurs fan has attributed the club’s successes this season in the Premiership and the Europa League not to the summer appointment of Andre Villas-Boas, the recent arrival of new goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, or even the prolific escapades of Jermain Defoe, but single-handedly the progress of Gareth Bale. No man is an island; no footballer makes a team; but it is understandable how such a conclusion is reached considering Tottenham’s recent rise in stock has coincided with the winger’s evolution and coming-of-age season.
Scott Parker however, a man who over the years has quietly earned the respect of football supporters across the country – unless you’re a West Ham fan, in which case it’s apparently more than fair to boo and jeer a player that gave them four years of loyal service and put into every performance the utmost enthusiasm, determination and effort possible – has a rather different hypothesis on the lynch-pin behind what could prove to be Tottenham’s most successful Premier League campaign to date; the ever-underestimated and constantly misunderstood Aaron Lennon.
Whilst Gareth Bale grabs all the headlines and gets linked to big-money moves to Real Madrid and Barcelona, with reported fees spanning from £40million to £70million depending on how sensational a goal the Tottenham midfielder has scored at the weekend, Aaron Lennon has been quietly going about his business on the opposite flank, picking up four goals and six assists along the way.
The intrigue surrounding Bale is not just based upon his ability to find the net, or any statistical data you could find to prove he’s an exceptional footballer, but rather the Wales international’s aesthetic manner of playing the game. His speed, pace and power sends chills down one’s spine, his explosive nature turns a moment of nothing into a sudden opportunity to score, and his technique provides the most beautiful and seemingly impossible goals.
In sharp contrast, Aaron Lennon is a simple, understated and less impacting kind of winger. He chips away at his opposing full-back, and holds back until the opportunity arises for bombing forward and providing an outlet to start the Spurs counter-attacks, which under Andre Villas-Boas have now become crucial to the game-plan, especially away from home.
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Whilst Bale is given a free role to twist inside and outside, take up positions in central midfield and almost as a supporting striker, Lennon keeps it basic. He stays out wide, he hugs the line and stretches out defences to provide the Welshman with enough space to gallop past opponents and take up positions with getting on the score-sheet being the highest priority.
Similarly, along with right-back Kyle Walker, Tottenham possess the fastest right flank in the English game. I am a firm believer that partnerships in football are always key. Of course, centre-back pairings are by far their most successful when complimenting each other, but all over the pitch connections can be made between two individuals based on a strong understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses which will consistently produce results; Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar at Everton are a good example. But the two Tottenham men, far from having an ‘opposites attract’ kind of bond, benefit from their similarities of being fast and agile, and Lennon’s pace forces opposing defences to push back and allow Kyle Walker space to venture into the middle of the park and almost play as a right midfielder whilst the Lillywhites are in possession – often to attempt one of his incredibly long-range on efforts on goal that never seem to hit the target.
But Lennon’s understated, unsung hero status doesn’t just apply to his tactical importance in getting the best out of Gareth Bale and Kyle Walker; the right winger has been labelled with the stigmatism of having no final ball. Yet, the stats would suggest that the negative connotation, which is often assumed as being the reason Lennon is rarely considered as a starting option for the England national team, is little more than a myth.
According to OPTA, the 25 year old is the 11th most creative player in the Premier League this season, having made 58 chances almost exclusively in open play. That’s 17 more than Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere and only seven less than Gareth Bale, despite the Welsh wonder taking up set piece duty, and furthermore, has 6 assists, all in open play, compared to Bale’s two. Similarly, his record for providing goals is the same as Santi Cazorla’s and one less than David Silva’s.
Going through the Premier League’s assists leader board, the Tottenham man currently sits on a total of 43, compared to Theo Walcott’s 33, Stewart Downing’s 34, Leighton Baines’s 33, and Ashley Young’s 39. In fact, in regards to Aaron Lennon’s limited international duty, having just 23 caps to his name, the only players currently part of the Three Lions set up that have a better Premier League record are Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney.
Far from having ‘no final ball’, the midfielder’s final ball is simply misunderstood. Whilst many expect a touchline-hugging, speedy and agile winger to get to the byline, or even simply parallel to the penalty box and whip in a hit-and-hope cross, the conventional English winger protocol, Lennon gets his assists by making rare moves inside, providing subtle passes and calculated through balls to unleash his team mates.
His passing accuracy of 85% is on par with the likes of Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla, Leon Osman and David Silva, despite all of them taking up comparatively more central positions than Lennon in their starting line-ups. Furthermore, although his crossing is often criticised, his 20% crossing accuracy is a comparatively decent return when judged against Theo Walcott’s, 15% and Adam Johnson’s, 19%, but still lacking compared to Lukas Podolski’s 29%, Matt Jarvis’s 25% and Leighton Baines’ 30% cross accuracy ratios.
Every team has their unsung heroes. Usually the title is reserved for a cult favourite, and often a defensive midfielder who does all the hard work but is rarely rewarded with moments of personal glory. But Tottenham’s comes in the form of a short and subtle winger, who is often overlooked by his club and the supporters in favour of the far more glamorous Gareth Bale, and for his country, where the likes of Stewart Downing, Alex Oxlade-Chamblerlain, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, Adam Johnson, James Milner and Theo Walcott are continually picked over him, despite all often being found wanting at domestic and international level. Perhaps it’s time the White Hart Lane man received some of the credit his form, tactical importance and ability to provide goals deserves.
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