Rafael Van der Vaart introduced himself immediately to the Tottenham faithful following his deadline day transfer from Real Madrid. The former Ajax captain, a player many felt was struggling to find a home for his supreme talent, looked as if he had finally found the place to express himself. His home debut was crowned with a goal from the penalty spot followed by four goals in his next three White Hart Lane appearances.
It wasn’t just goals which so immediately inspired the Spurs fans; it was the way the Dutchman went about his business with flair and creativity that captivated them and, for the first time in a while, this was again managed against Arsenal on Wednesday. For many it may have appeared a strange decision to start with Van der Vaart in a right-wing position usually occupied by Aaron Lennon. Indeed, much of Harry Redknapp’s success this season, particularly at White Hart Lane, has come from pace out wide. Against a team of the calibre of Arsenal something other than raw pace is required, however, and this is where Van der Vaart really came into his own.
He looked to come inside of his flank at every opportunity, picking up the ball in the dangerous gap between attack and defence, causing Bacary Sagna to be unsure whether to follow him or hold his position. If Sagna stayed put this required either one of the centre halves or a defensive midfielder to be pulled out of position. Not only was Van der Vaart hurting Arsene Wenger’s side in this manner, his telepathy with Peter Crouch was a dangerous weapon for Spurs all evening. Each time left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto picked up the ball he looked to hit diagonal crosses to Crouch pulling away at the back post. Crouch in turn looked for Van der Vaart with his knockdowns. Despite not creating a goal, this tactic caused numerous problems for the Arsenal back line.
The Dutchman will have been pleased to have put in a match winning performance following his poor showing against former club Real Madrid and will be keen to show his nomination for PFA Player of the Year wasn’t simply down to his early season form. The best way he can do this is by finding his form on a consistent basis and firing Spurs into fourth spot and looking at the north Londoners’ run in; they’ll certainly need their star man. Saturday’s encounter sees them at home against an invigorated West Brom, a tough match so soon after the energy zapping pace of Wednesday, but it is fixtures away at Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool where the class of Van der Vaart must tell.
The City match is the one many are earmarking as the decisive encounter and against a side which like to keep things tight and physical, the nous of a player like Van der Vaart may prove telling. Clearly Chelsea and Liverpool again prove stern tests and with the Liverpool game coming five days after the City match questions will surely be asked of the one black mark against the Dutchman’s first season in English football – his fitness.
For many, Tottenham has been a breath of fresh air this season with Van der Vaart the catalyst, but it could all mean nothing without him showing his worth in the final six games.