Whenever we look back at Manchester City’s last-gasp run to the Premier League title in 2012, it’s easy to look at the run-in as a two-horse race between Roberto Mancini’s team and neighbours Manchester United. However, for much longer than many may care to remember, an exciting Tottenham side were very much in the mix,
After beginning the campaign with defeats to the two Manchester clubs – including a 5-1 humbling at home to City on the same day United put eight past Arsenal – a run of 31 points from a possible 33 put Spurs right back in the mix.
That was somewhere they stayed right up until two devastating defeats at the Etihad and the Emirates saw a collapse take effect from late February. Up until then, though, they were a force to be reckoned with – thanks in no small part to the unpredictable talents of Rafael van der Vaart.
That incarnation of Spurs couldn’t be much more different to what we have been accustomed to seeing under Mauricio Pochettino.
Instead of being led by homegrown products and exciting players signed as youngsters, Harry Redknapp’s teams of the early 2010s were altogether older and more established.
There was some young talent, headlined by Gareth Bale, but the average age of Redknapp’s squad was 26.81; by contrast, nine Spurs starting XIs last season were a full year younger than that average.
The Spurs manager was no stranger to getting the most out of once-great talents whose careers had hit a wall: he revived Paolo di Canio’s career at West Ham after the Italian served a suspension for pushing a referee, while Croatian star Robert Prosinečki enjoyed a glorious-if-short late-career renaissance under Redknapp at Portsmouth.
Van der Vaart was not quite as old, but his time at Real Madrid was clearly up once new manager José Mourinho had added Mesut Özil and Ángel di María to an already top-heavy squad.
But there had been high notes before then, and when Spurs signed the Dutchman on deadline day of 2010 they knew they were getting a man who could score goals like this – the first in a hat-trick against Sporting Gijón and the kind of strike that looks like the team have deployed cheat mode.
When Van der Vaart arrived at White Hart Lane, Spurs were about to embark on their first ever Champions League campaign and needed the talent to suit.
Transfer deadline day already carried some less-than-fond memories in the white half of North London, following the sale of Dimitar Berbatov two years earlier, so the arrival of a man once considered among the best young talents in world football was nothing short of a big deal.
That said, statement signings had flattered to deceive before, with Hélder Postiga and Serhiy Rebrov the most notable examples, so some supporters might have been keen to avoid bigging up the Dutchman too much until he’d actually done something. Thankfully, they didn’t have long to wait.
Van der Vaart squandered his first chance to score the opener in White Hart Lane’s first big Champions League night, seeing his penalty saved by FC Twente’s Nikolay Mihaylov, but his well-taken volley in the same game set Spurs on their way for a 4-1 win which would set the tone for a memorable campaign which also featured an iconic double-header against Internazionale.
The goal against Twente came from a Peter Crouch knockdown, and the pair formed an unlikely partnership in North London.
It was a time of huge investment in the league, with English clubs dominating European competitions with the help of the best players in the world, so the combination of simple knockdowns and mercurial close-control felt like a throwback, or at the very least a bridge between old and new.
The pair first showed what they were capable of in a victory over Aston Villa, with Van der Vaart scoring twice from Crouch headers, and the second of the two was beautiful to watch.
Sometimes a player can do as much by not touching the ball as by touching it, and so it showed here, with a subtle feint allowing Richard Dunne to slide across like a hockey puck. When it becomes clear that Van der Vaart has opted to wait before shooting, you can see the despair on Dunne’s face as he turns back and looks on helplessly, unable to prevent the ball hitting the back of the net.
Goals against Aston Villa do not a Spurs cult hero make, however, and goals against Arsenal in north London derbies proved much more important in cementing his reputation.
The goals played some part, of course – a penalty in the come-from-behind 3-2 win at White Hart Lane was his first of four goals in as many meetings with Arsenal – but Van der Vaart’s brief encounter with Jack Wilshere was no less special.
Sure, Spurs might have later got their hands on a player who literally pulled his opponent’s shorts down, but back at the start of the decade they at least had a man who could do it figuratively.
One of these nutmegs might have been enough to ensure Van der Vaart a place in Spurs folklore, but two – combined with everything else he crammed into his time at the club – is almost overkill.
Van der Vaart’s time at Spurs effectively ended with Redknapp’s departure in the summer of 2012.
Chelsea’s Champions League triumph cost Spurs a place in the competition in the 2012-13 season, and new manager André Villas-Boas oversaw a squad overhaul which brought exits for Van der Vaart, Luka Modrić and several more members of the squad which finished fourth under Redknapp.
Ultimately, the Dutchman’s time at Spurs will forever be associated with a weird bubble period for the club and for English football, a transition before the fallow continental period where only an otherwise underwhelming Chelsea were able to crack UEFA competitions and the domestic league laid the foundations for what would become the big six era.
On the surface of things, a couple of impressive scoring seasons from midfield in a team which finished fifth and fourth seems impressive only to a point. However, in Rafael van der Vaart, we have the perfect example of why it often pays to look beyond the numbers.
By Tom Victor