It wasn’t the precise cross for Gareth Bale’s opening goal, nor his abnormally inaccurate passing in the opening stages of the 2-1 win at Southampton that Andre Villas-Boas will take from this week. It won’t even be the abysmal missed tackle on Dejan Mezga in the 1-1 draw with Maribor on Thursday. No, the value of Tom Huddlestone was evident just minutes after he was withdrawn from Sunday’s game and Tottenham descended into panic-stricken hoof-ball in a desperate attempt to cling onto the three points.
His replacement, Jake Livermore, had a nightmarish 25 minutes in which he was booked for a terrifically late challenge after conceding possession high up the pitch, a product of his dallying on the ball, unsure of what to do with it. Livermore played 38 times under Harry Redknapp last season and to give him his dues, he stuck at his role as anchor man – took the ball off the opposition and handed it to the likes of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale.
Yet, at St Mary’s, his introduction was the catalyst for frenetic, frantic clearances, aimless long balls and some poor choices. In one particular incident the ball bounced off a Southampton head and broke for Livermore, who, without a moments thought, punted the ball 60 yards up field leaving Bale to his left and in acres of space pleading for the ball next time. The game needed composure and cool heads, what it got was a player devoid of the awareness needed to ease Spurs over the finishing line.
Livermore has been a reliable member of the Tottenham squad for the past year-and-a-half and perhaps with a run of games and a rhythm you can only acquire from consistent minutes, he would make better decisions. It is possible that entering the game as Southampton had their tails up spooked him a little. He was also not the only culprit in a poor second half.
Huddlestone in contrast has always provided an air of calm to Spurs’ play. He has his drawbacks and will forever be limited by his athleticism, or lack thereof, and even in a first half in which Nigel Adkins’ side allowed the Tottenham midfield the freedom of St Mary’s, Huddlestone was patchy.
He began with two attempted forward passes that immediately put Spurs on the back foot, as he handed possession to Southampton. But after an uncertain first ten minutes and a firm talking to from Villas-Boas, who gestured for the 26-year-old to settle and calm down, he improved.
Moments later he delivered an inch perfect cross for Bale to guide a header past Artur Boruc and initial concerns over Huddlestone abated. There has never been much doubt that he has a passing range to rival most of his contemporaries, however there are two schools of thought on his use of such skills.
The cynical view is that Huddlestone can only really pass backwards and sideways and the occasional aesthetic 50-yard ball should not mask his otherwise unadventurous approach. Those looking to defend the Nottingham-born midfielder point to the lack of options and static nature of them as the limiting factor.
Against Maribor, much of the game was played at walking pace. This doesn’t help impressions of Huddlestone, who often appears to only operate at walking pace anyway. Yet he did put together a series of progressive balls to Aaron Lennon – his go-to option in years gone by. It must also not be forgotten that before injury curtailed his middle-20s, Huddlestone was a near ever-present the season Spurs made it into the hallowed top four, playing 43 games in midfield.
The criticism that he can never be part of a modern midfield looks flawed when stacked against the 2009-10 example; he has previous – and in a 4-4-2 no less. Of course, the ankle injury that has sidelined him for so long (and is now understood to be a permanent hindrance) slowed his development and in many eyes his movement. Not those of Villas-Boas though, who had this to say in the post-match press conference at Southampton.
“Tom offers so much – this is a player who missed 15 months out through injury, he had extremely harsh setbacks and he has recovered. For him to play three games in a week is very important. Towards 65 to 70 minutes, physically he was feeling the strain so we made the change for Jake.”
And so we return to the options Villas-Boas has at his disposal. With Mousa Dembele out with a hip problem, pace and physical drive is missing in Tottenham’s midfield. Sandro can get forward when instructed to and did a passable impression of a box-to-box midfielder against Maribor, but many will be itching for Dembele’s return. However, with Clint Dempsey operating just off Defoe, buzzing around and claiming second balls, providing the midfield with the energy Gylfi Sigurdsson cannot, the duo of Sandro and Huddlestone has its merits.
It is vital that when these two feature together, Villas-Boas ensures there is pace around them. On Sunday, there was just that as Tottenham rampaged through the Saints in the first half. With Bale, Lennon, Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen on the flanks, the club have fast outlets, but often the midfield have struggled to distribute swiftly enough to utilise them. The first 45 minutes saw Huddlestone constantly arc passes to his full-backs and wingers. He may be slow of body, but not of mind or technique, as he stroked the ball first time with precision to his wide men.
If you leave any preconceptions of Huddlestone to one side for a moment, this ability is something so rarely seen in the top-flight. There are not many central midfielders technically adept enough to spread play as accurately as he is able to do and with such insouciant ease.
Villas-Boas was asked whether he believed the lack of height up front affected Tottenham’s ability to keep hold of the ball in a difficult second half. Rather than acknowledge the debate, the Portuguese coach instead took a more abstract view, highlighting the quality of pass the striker receives as the defining factor.
He explained: “It’s a question of technical and tactical ability. We have players of the dimension of Rooney for example and Defoe and people who hold onto the ball very, very well. The ball wasn’t arriving in the proper conditions for any striker to hold onto it. If it arrives under cleaner conditions, Defoe, Crouch, Rooney, all of them are able to hold onto the ball. It’s more a question of talent.
“When you are on the back foot you are trying to come out of situations of pressure. Certainly you need somebody to be there as a reference to hold onto the ball. I wouldn’t measure it on a question of height, I would measure it on a question of tactical and technical ability.”
Reading between the lines, Villas-Boas called for an improvement in service, or at least accuracy, in the delivery of forward balls to Defoe – especially towards the end of the match. In fact, after watching the many aimless clearances, Villas-Boas replaced Defoe with Sigurdsson, a form of grim acceptance that Defoe would be useless without some semblance of service.
And so we come full circle to Huddlestone. His withdrawal was unavoidable but directly correlated with a loss of structure and control on a game Spurs should have won by the halfway point, as composure in midfield was lost and Southampton were handed the initiative.
But it remains to be seen whether Huddlestone will play a key role for Spurs over the remainder of the season. Talk of a need for pace throughout the Villas-Boas model essentially puts an end to any Huddlestone debate. Why continue with the immobile option when others offer a dynamism vital to the modern midfield? Ultimately it comes down to balance: do Huddlestone’s technical attributes outweigh his physical deficiencies? Is there a way to accommodate him when first-choice players are unavailable?
These questions will be going through Villas-Boas’ mind as he assesses the run of fixtures facing Spurs. Norwich in the Capital One Cup, Wigan and Maribor at home followed by a trip to the Premier League champions offer enough of a mix for him to truly understand what Huddlestone can provide.
Villas-Boas didn’t entirely give the impression that he saw a long-term future for Huddlestone at Tottenham, yet Sunday will serve as a reminder that if he is to sell the midfielder – he was a failed medical away from doing so in the summer – there are few players who ooze serenity as much as Huddlestone.