Younes Kaboul: Raring to go again. Now for the really big challenge
Injury has prevented Tottenham's French defender from impressing Andre Villas-Boas much this season. But he is determined to regain his Premier League starting berth. Jack Pitt-Brookemeets Younes Kaboul
Sunday 06 October 2013
The pace of change at Tottenham Hotspur has been so fast, so relentless, that even Younes Kaboul – a relative veteran, a familiar reliable force – has had to run to keep up.
Running through the forests of Enfield last season to recover from knee surgery. Running around Holland this summer in his own personal pre-season. Running to prove to Andre Villas-Boas and the rest that, in this newly advanced Tottenham team, this strong squad, he is as worthy of a place as he has ever been.
Tottenham Hotspur are a very different club from the one Kaboul joined from Auxerre in 2007. Of the current squad, only Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon and Michael Dawson – who yesterday signed a new three-year contract – were there when he arrived. They are the only players to play under Martin Jol, to win the 2008 League Cup, to play with that last generation of Spurs players like Dimitar Berbatov and Paul Robinson.
This Spurs side, though, post-Harry Redknapp, post-Gareth Bale, post-Spurs Lodge, is "definitely better" than the old one, Kaboul explains. "The club has grown up a lot, but in a short time. And I am very impressed with that. We have played in the Champions League, we are a more regular, more serious side in the League now. Teams are waiting for us. Teams respect us a lot more."
Kaboul, very understandably, is desperate still to be a part of it. He was through the 2011-12 season – when Spurs came fourth in the Premier League – their best defender. Redknapp went, Villas-Boas came in and picked Kaboul for his first game. But he injured his knee, requiring surgery and months of repetitive rehabilitation. "Every day is always the same routine. Always the same target, to get back fit. I did rehab every day. No rest. It was very tough but you have to do it." This was, primarily, gym work and swimming, but also running, through the forests which surround Spurs' new state-of-the-art training facility in Enfield, where they moved around the time of Kaboul's injury. "And I used to do some extra work in my house and in the gym. You have to work your socks off."
Kaboul worked hard alongside Sandro, who injured his knee in January. "We worked together, we shared a lot. I was happy because I was not alone." In April, Kaboul returned to Spurs' Under-21 side, only to pick up a thigh injury. His season was over.
"I knew, as soon as I had this [knee] injury, that this would happen one day, because when you're coming back from injury you always have something else coming, with muscles, so I was not very surprised but I was gutted also because I was nearly there to be fully fit."
So as Spurs fought for fourth but just missed out, Kaboul had to watch, and hated it. "When your team is playing every week and you can't help them, it is the worst feeling. I'd rather be dead, you know. It is very frustrating but you have to go through that."
After the frustration of missing so much football, Kaboul was desperate to be fully involved this season. So he gave up two weeks of his summer break – before pre-season – to go to Holland to work with Eduardo, a fitness trainer, "a very good guy, a very professional man", well known for his work with Brazilian and Portuguese players.
"Leg-strengthening, body-strengthening, running, sharp things to get fit. It was very good, very tough. Sweat training is very strict. I was on holiday, I could have gone anywhere. But I went to Holland. Waking up every day at 8am, finishing at 5pm or 6pm. So it was tough, really tough, but it was good."
"You realise that you are only happy when you are healthy," says Kaboul, suitably enough, after a Tottenham Foundation event, talking to young men about cancer, rather putting his own struggles in perspective. "It is the most important. It is always good to discuss healthcare, it is always a pleasure."
So when pre-season began, Spurs' first in their new Enfield facility – "the accommodation is unbelievable there" – Kaboul was ready to play, and on Thursday night he managed his fourth game of the season. A slight knock means he will not be able to play his fifth today but having missed a whole year of Villas-Boas's training, preparation and tactics, is he able to integrate and adapt his game to the Villas-Boas plan? Kaboul almost bristles at the suggestion he can't. "I know exactly how Andre wants us to play." Not just that, but he loves it. "It is the best way for us, as a team, as a group, to play like that. And he is a very good manager, everyone knows that at the club and in Europe."
The most distinct part of the Villas-Boas model, of course, is the high defensive line. The Spurs back four now squeeze as far up the pitch as possible to pressure the opposition. It is not universally popular – it was one of the problems with Villas-Boas's spell at Chelsea – but Kaboul, who has the pace and the nous to cope, would not have it any other way.
"It is the best way to play. Every big team now plays high lines. It is the best one, because then when you win the ball you always try to win the ball in the other half of the pitch, and it is easier to keep the ball and to score. For us defenders it is the best."
But it is only made possible because of Hugo Lloris, Spurs' remarkable goalkeeper who is uncannily quick off his line, allowing him to sweep up anything that sneaks through. Kaboul knows how important his old mate is to the system. "Of course, because he is so quick off his line you can play even higher. He comes off [his line], and he has shown many times last season and this season, he is very quick on his feet, it is very important for us."
Beyond the pitch, too, Kaboul is delighted to have Lloris at Spurs. "We have known each other since we were 17", he explains. Both players were in the France squad which won the 2005 European Under-19 Championship, along with Arsenal's Abou Diaby and the Newcastle pair of Yohan Cabaye and Yoann Gouffran. "We have always had a lot of respect [for each other], he is a great man, speaks good English now, learns quickly and feels good in London."
Kaboul himself is a big part of that. Having been at Spurs for so long, he is now responsible for helping the new boys, such as Lloris and fellow France international Etienne Capoue, settle in.
"I show them how it works here, because it is different from France, lifestyle also, what to do for food shopping, stuff like that." It is a role in which Kaboul revels. "It is always good when players – French or not – ask you something and you are able to give them answers."
Now as a senior player, especially with Ledley King gone, there is a responsibility on Kaboul – and those like Dawson – to set the new standards. It is one he is desperate to uphold.
"We have been here a lot of years now, we know it perfectly. On the pitch, in the dressing room, in training, we always try to improve every time, every day."
Hugo Lloris also likes tennis... but I would beat him
Younes Kaboul is a big tennis fan and enjoys watching the sport.
"I used to play tennis and football but I stopped tennis at 10 or 11, as it was too expensive," he said. "When I am on holiday I can spend up to five hours on the court every day.
"My favourite is Rafael Nadal, of course. Because he is the most powerful one.
"We are the same age, and he has won everything already. I like his attitude. And we had the same injury as well! Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is good, he is getting better every year, with every tournament.
"He is going to be up there with Nadal. Maybe if he comes to London, maybe for the Masters I will go and see him.
"Hugo Lloris also likes tennis, but I would beat him."
Spurs join fortress Europe
Tottenham have the equal second-best defensive record in Europe's major leagues, conceding only to Olivier Giroud and John Terry in six games. Only Roma have let in fewer goals.
Bayern Munich 2/7
Includes teams from England, Holland, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Statistics correct up to and including Friday's matches.
Younes Kaboul was speaking at a Tottenham Hotspur Foundation healthy living workshop in support of the NHS 'Get to know cancer' campaign
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