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Rafael van der Vaart – A World Class Talent To Be Enjoyed!

As someone who has always had an interest (some have called it an obsession; meh) in football around the world, Rafael van der Vaart came to my attention about 10 years ago. Another graduate of the famed Ajax academy, breaking into the first team and showing his exciting talent on the world stage. First glimpses of him in European action showed that he was indeed a technically gifted player with the potential to go all the way in world football. This goal, from the 2003/04 season made that all the more clear:

van der Vaart backheel goal for Ajax

By this point van der Vaart had made his international debut for Holland and despite the odd injury setback was a regular in a young and exciting Ajax team also featuring Wesley Sneijder and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Van der Vaart occassionally played from wide positions, but was always more comfortable and effective in a central attacking midfield role. This is neatly illustrated by his scoring record at Ajax, 52 goals in 117 league appearances is fantastic for a non-forward.

His ongoing injury woes along with criticism in the Dutch press about his relationship with future wife Sylvie led to Rafa deciding to leave Amsterdam. That his ultimate destination was HSV Hamburg was a big surprise for many, he had been strongly linked with AC Milan and other top clubs had shown an interest over the previous years. Dutch legend Johan Cruyff was virtually speechless, not something that happens very often! He wrote this in his De Telegraaf column: “I don’t know what to say about it or what Rafael van der Vaart is doing in Hamburg.”

Nevertheless van der Vaart fit into the Hamburg team and very quickly became a leader on the pitch, top scoring for the team in his first season, then going on to assume the captaincy in 2006. During his time at Hamburg, van der Vaart also became more of a team player than he had before, adding numerous assists to his goal scoring repertoire. Upon his arrival at HSV, Martin Jol (he’s got no hair but we don’t care!!) had this to say about Rafa “he is one of the top five playmakers in Europe and dictates the rythym of Hamburg”.

Unfortunately for Jol, his playmaker was to be ripped away from him before the season got under way as van der Vaart finally made the move to a big club. They don’t come much bigger than Real Madrid and Rafa took his place among the Galacticos in 2008. He scored on his debut and a couple of weeks later hit his first career hat trick in a 7-1 demolition of Sporting Gijon. By the end of the year, due to his impressive form for Hamburg at the end of the season and his ballistic start at Madrid, van der Vaart found himself on the shortlist for the Balon d’Or. In the second half of the 2008/09 season it was rumoured that van der Vaart had fallen out with coach Juande Ramos (remember him?), even so Rafa still had a part to play, albeit mainly from the bench as an impact sub.

Summer 2009 saw Rafa face the biggest challenges of his life, on and off the pitch. With a clutch of new signings, not least Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, new coach Manuel Pelligrini left van der Vaart without a squad number and made it known that the Dutchman was available for transfer. Wife Sylvie was at the time being treated for cancer at Madrid’s prestigious Clinica Quiron and Rafa was loath to move himself and his wife at such a testing time. He vowed to fight for his place and indeed managed to claim a squad number for the season. Even so he was left on the bench in the early part of the year. Injury to Kaka however gave Rafa his chance, one he took with both hands, scoring six goals and providing 7 assists in 26 league appearances (10 from the bench) in the latter part of the season. This was the season when Madrid claimed their largest ever points haul in La Liga and would have walked the title if they hadn’t been up against Pep Guardiola’s Barca. Despite impressing coach and pundits alike in his ability to fill the Kaka void it was to be van der Vaarts last season in the Spanish capital.

With Kaka coming back to fitness, Jose Mourinho was always likely to favour the Brazilian. Mourinho may well be very much his own man, but he knows when to play the politics game. Kaka was and remains a favourite of Madrid president Florentino Perez, the Brazilian also cost €49m as opposed to the €13m spent on van der Vaart.

And so it was that on deadline day of the summer 2010 window the news emerged that van der Vaart was set to make a shock switch to Spurs for only £8m. This was Daniel Levy’s present to Harry Redknapp for getting Spurs into the group stages of the Champions League. A true world class player, on the back of a World Cup final appearance, to complement the burgeoning talents of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. True, Rafa wasn’t the striker that everyone knew Spurs needed, but he was a unique talent who could provide the Lilywhites with that extra factor.

Despite what some will have you believe, van der Vaart is a match winner. He has proved this throughout his career and continues to do so with Spurs. In his first season, he top scored with 15 goals from 36 matches in all competitions. His eight assists in the league were also a club high. Still it was his fault that Spurs didn’t do better right? No, obviously not.

Trying to shoe horn Rafa into a 4-4-2 or the 4-4-1-1 variant with the wrong players was the mistake. Rafael van der Vaart plays best as a central attacking midfielder. He’s proved this time and again throughout his career, flourishing when given this role at all of his clubs and at international level for the Oranje. His first few months at Spurs showed this, playing off Peter Crouch wasn’t an ideal partnership but due to Rafa’s intelligence, movement, sheer quality and finishing it worked, until teams started cutting out the big diagonals to the back post.

After his blistering start to the season, including a key role in the North London Derby comeback victory at the home of the enemy, his season became affected by injury. Too often it seemed he was rushed back – or rushed himself back – into the team and it was in the second half of the season that he was to start to fade in matches and his fitness was questioned. For this part of the season, Harry Redknapp also decided that right wing was the answer to accomodating Rafa in his team. Wrong again Harry. In a 4-4-2 it is suicidal to play van der Vaart in that role. He is, as he pointed out after the latest North London Derby victory, (his discussion of this was written eloquently about by Mel Gomes here), not a winger and tracking players back and holding a wide position is not his natural game. Some offer this as proof that he’s not a team player and that his inflexibility mean there is no place for him in the Spurs team. It’s as if van der Vaart is the only player in the squad who can only play one position. How versatile are Defoe, Adebayor, Dawson, Assou-Ekotto, Parker, Friedel? Should they all be discarded, because they can only play one position? No, of course not, nor should van der Vaart. A common lie about van der Vaart is that he’s always left teams because no one could fit him in to the side. That’s all it is though, a lie; he left Ajax because of the ‘goldfish bowl’ effect; he left HSV because one of the world’s biggest clubs came calling; and he left Madrid because he wanted to play and a former World Player of the Year stood in his way.

The sooner Redknapp and others realise how outdated 4-4-2 is and how vulnerable it makes Spurs against big teams the better for the team and for his ability to get van der Vaart into the team in his favoured role where he can impact games, positively, on a regular basis. A 4-2-3-1 formation is the future, as seen in the first half away to Wigan. Two defensive midfielders mean the fullbacks can push up and be sure not to leave the centre backs exposed, while it leaves a dynamic trio of van der Vaart, Modric and Bale roaming behind a talented solo striker in Adebayor. That first half at Wigan provided some of the most fluid football seen from Spurs, or anyone in the Premier League for that matter, in a long time. That kind of football is possible from the 4-2-3-1 formation and it’s a myth to suggest that teams can’t play with one front man at home. Tell that to Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Spain, Germany and countless other top club and international sides.

It’s baffling as to why some Spurs fans criticise van der Vaart and would be happy to see him leave in January, he always shows his passion and dedication to the cause out on the pitch. This is shown even more in North London Derbies, he has four goals in three appearances against Arsenal and always looks more up for it than most, as his joyous and passionate celebrations show. In last seasons 3-3 draw at The Lane, he revelled in schooling Jack Wilshere, nutmegging him twice in twenty seconds:

Rafa takes on Wilshere and wins

Another criticism from van der Vaarts performances last season were his propensity to drop deep in looking for the ball. This was hardly surprising, the whole team were in a funk and getting the ball to the players that could do the damage was proving a struggle. Van der Vaart isn’ the first and won’t be the last top class player to try and go and influence a game from deep and get a grip on the ball, Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gerrard to name just three who all display this same trait.

All in all, van der Vaart is the finest example of a game changing player Spurs have had since Paul Gascoigne. He’s not perfect but then no one is. He does however have 92 caps for the Dutch national team, no mean feat in any generation. He has played for Real Madrid and also starred in European competition for Ajax, Hamburg and now Spurs. World class talents like van der Vaart don’t rock up at your club on a regular basis. They should be enjoyed while they are around and I for one see it as a privilege to watch such a player in action.


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