A squad containing Ledley King, Jonathan Woodgate, Michael Dawson and Sebastien Bassong would universally be considered pretty strong in central defence. Three are England international centre-backs, something traditionally carrying a global stamp of quality, and Bassong was a shining light in an otherwise poor Newcastle side relegated from the Premier League last season. A squad that also boasts the talents of Tom Huddlestone as defensive cover is even better. A central-midfielder by day, the giant Huddlestone masquerades as a defender by night, and as his recent displays covering for his injury prone colleagues show, he is very good indeed.
Described by some as the natural successor to Glenn Hoddle – albeit one who has arrived a couple of decades too late – for his poise on the ball and ability to hit a killer pass, it is Huddlestone’s more robust qualities that have come to the fore in recent games. An ever-present so far this season, the former Derby man has proved a versatile blessing for Harry Redknapp, switching between a midfield role in a team that has made a great offensive start to the campaign and a defensive role in a side looking to recover from shaky performances at the back.. Against Burnley, he even managed to combine the two roles throwing an assist in to the mix, his long pass out of defence setting up Robbie Keane’s third goal.
Switching roles is nothing new for the England Under-21 star. A central-defender in his youth, he burst onto the scene at Derby as a 16-year-old midfielder. Possessing the physical presence of a powerful defender but the technical ability of a midfield maestro, his long-term role was not initially clear. With such a big frame, it is easy to consider Huddlestone overweight and unfit, and it is true that he does not possess the mobility to be a box-to-box midfielder. What he does have is exceptional reading of the game and vision that would allow him to slot in alongside a more dynamic midfield warrior, something Spurs now possess in Wilson Palacios. When needs demand, he can still move back into defence, as he has done recently, and here his strength and anticipation come into their own. Redknapp eulogised about his young charge after the Burnley match, saying: “He started out playing at the back as a kid and he’s majestic when he plays there, he just has that air of confidence about him. When someone like that is so comfortable on the ball you never panic when he gets it, you think ‘it is okay, Tom’s got it’ and he reads the game so well as well.”
With the World Cup approaching, Huddlestone has an outside chance of making the plane to South Africa if he can continue to play a leading role in a successful Spurs side while demonstrating his versatility. With just 20 outfield spots up for grabs, being able to cover two positions can boost your case, meaning Fabio Capello can afford an extra wildcard option elsewhere. Someone like Wes Brown becomes more attractive as cover for right-back and centre-back than he would be if he played just one position, likewise James Milner with his ability to play on either wing. If Huddlestone can continue to push his cause with his performances on the pitch, he might just have a chance of edging out someone like Michael Carrick or Matthew Upson. The out-of-form Rio Ferdinand aside, England lack a centre-back comfortable enough on the ball to make a difference playing the ball out from the back. Huddlestone is not likely to make the squad purely as a defender with other specialist defenders around, but as a fourth central midfielder and a fourth centre-back, he could be an attractive option that allows Capello to take a fifth striker – maybe a potential match-winner like Michael Owen.
Realistically, the World Cup is a long shot for Huddlestone and for now he needs to concentrate on keeping up his excellent form, whatever position he is playing. He attributes his progress to someone few Spurs fans have any kind words for, Juande Ramos. The Spaniard came down hard on Huddlestone over his physical conditioning, for which the player is grateful: “Iit did help me to be honest. I was out of the squad for a month so I had to do whatever he wanted to get back into the team and managed to do that. I’m a lot leaner now.” Leaner, and meaner, Huddlestone is now a key member of the Spurs team, and he will look to help his team to their first away win at Bolton in years on Saturday, whether playing at the back or in midfield.
Tottenham Club Focus
Defoe dazzles but may remain an England substitute – September 8
Redknapp to thank for Lennon renaissance – September 11
Spurs fail first big test – September 15
Transfer budget not affected by new training complex – September 18
Honesty not always the best policy in football– September 22
Redknapp almost spoilt for choice – September 25
Four-Star Robbie serves up timely reminder – September 29 Versatile Huddlestone is two for the price of one – October 2