If the main worry for Tottenham supporters at the start of the season was how their team would cope without Gareth Bale, they should feel reassured. It is the man who left 12 months before Bale whose absence is still being felt at White Hart Lane.
Luka Modric joined Real Madrid for £33m in the summer of 2012 and initially, it looked a smart piece of business. The Croatian’s early displays were so insipid he was derided in Madrid, and Spurs chairman Daniel Levy had reason to congratulate himself for selling the player at just the right time – or so it seemed.
Those who were scornful towards Modric had forgotten that, sooner or later, high-class players produce high-class matches. Little by little, Modric settled and, two months into his second season in Spain, he has been one of Real’s most consistent players. Spurs’ start to the season has been very solid, but how they could do with a midfielder of his talent and imagination.
Andre Villas-Boas wants Tottenham to evolve from a team who were devastating on the counter-attack – as 10 away victories in the Premier League last season demonstrated – to one comfortable with shaping the course of the match by dominating possession.
For this strategy to have maximum effect, though, you need a midfielder capable of controlling the rhythm of the game by finding space, and then creating it for team-mates with quick, clever passing. Spurs have considerable strength in depth in central midfield, but is any one of them capable of establishing himself as the heartbeat of the side?
Mousa Dembélé – left out of the starting XI yesterday – is quick, strong and skilful, but is far more effective carrying the ball forward at pace than he is at finding the runs of team-mates. Sandro is valuable for graft rather than craft, while Paulinho, another Brazilian, is adept at running into dangerous positions in attack, less so at creating them for others. Étienne Capoue, still absent as he recovers from an ankle injury, is another player who has more power than finesse.
Lewis Holtby and Christian Eriksen, one of the club’s principal summer signings, have characteristics most similar to those of Modric; time will tell if they can emulate him. Yesterday, Holtby replaced Eriksen in the starting line-up against Aston Villa and, apart from playing a crucial role in Tottenham’s second goal, was influential only occasionally.
Eriksen has shown at Ajax and in the Denmark team that he is a subtle, intelligent footballer. He has made a relatively promising start to life in north London and, once he has had more time to adapt, he will surely flourish. Whether the 21-year-old can become as magical as Modric is another question.
In order not to strike too negative a tone, we should remember that Spurs are a very competent side. They have an excellent goalkeeper, they are generally solid without the ball and – given the time and space – they have players who can do plenty of damage with it. Yet in allowing Villas-Boas, and technical director Franco Baldini, to spend the world record £86m for Bale on the players they had identified, Levy wants a return on his investment. This time, he is unlikely to be happy with a side who challenge for a Champions League place throughout the campaign, only to fall short in its closing days.
Make no mistake: a top-four place this season is Levy’s minimum requirement, not least because he knows Champions League football makes his club far more attractive to investors, as he seeks the finance he needs to proceed with the construction of a new stadium.
Furthermore, this is a season where a dominant force has yet to emerge, with Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United yet to find top speed. The chance is there for Spurs to build a proper challenge. There is much to like about their style and many of their players – but how they could use a man capable of conducting the orchestra.