The song has become way too familiar for all Tottenham Hotspur fans. A new season is looming ever closer on the horizon and the club seems to be in a perpetual state of disarray. With a new manager coming in and needing time to start implementing his tactical methodology, this was always going to be a period of change at White Hart Lane.
What most Spurs fans had not counted on was that the same circus which enveloped the club last season would be back in town this close to the start of new one. They range from having no striker to replace Emmanuel Adebayor, whose loan contract has expired, leaving Spurs without any suitable options to play as a lone striker to questions over the high block which has become Andre Villas-Boas’ signature and how the players will adapt to it. But the tabloid media’s favourite bugaboo to rile Spurs fans is the future of want away Croatian midfielder Luka Modric.
The 26-year-old Croatian, who signed four years ago from Dynamo Zagreb quickly established himself as a favourite with the fans playing in a tucked in left sided position in Harry Redknapp’s improving team, impressing as the season went on including scoring a brilliant winning goal against Chelsea. Modric was tipped take the league by storm the next year and a promising personal start to the season, where Spurs had won their first four games, was cruelly ended until the New Year when a collision with Lee Bowyer left him with a broken fibula. Although it took him some time to find his rhythm after injury, it was Redknapp’s decision to move him into his preferred position in the centre of midfield that gave a new lease of life to the little midfielder.
Playing more centrally allowed him to get hold of the ball more and start orchestrating games by showing his abilities as a playmaker. Before signing, Jonathan Wilson described him as being part of a new breed of playmakers who would have fit perfectly into the visions of the great Valeriy Lobanovsky and Arrigo Sacchi due to their “universability” mixing work rate and defensive contribution with brilliant creative and attacking play, something not seen with the Juan Roman Riquelme style playmaker.
Since moving into the centre midfield against Arsenal a little over two-years-ago, the impish magician has become arguably the finest ball playing central midfielder in the league. After failing to secure a move to Chelsea last year, and apparently coming to an arrangement with Daniel Levy to stay for one final season, it looks increasingly likely that he will be gone before the window closes. He is currently training by himself after refusing to go on the pre season tour to the USA. The question, at some point, needs to move from will he go to who could replace him?
I have compiled a list of possible options that Villas-Boas may be looking at to replace Modric with. I have tried to show a bit of variety and not go for all the obvious choices and discounted anyone who would not realistically sign for Spurs. For example Toni Kroos would be an amazing replacement but will not be swapping the Allianz Arena for White Hart Lane any time soon.
The first thing to establish is what Modric offers to the team. A quick break down of his stats and an examination of his performances will allow us to examine exactly what Spurs need to replace.
Modric completed a club high average of 70.4 passes per game with a very impressive 87.4% completion rate. But what really is striking about the want away midfielder is the variation in his passing range with 1.4% of his passes being through balls and 13% being long balls. This variety allowed Spurs to switch between their favoured more direct style and more controlled way of playing the game. His ability to get the ball out wide quickly is one of the key plays that Spurs liked to utilise over the course of the past season, allowing him to switch it either to the wingers or rampaging fullbacks. He offers Spurs a variation in the play and is the grand conductor of everything which is beautiful on the pitch.
Despite failing to get a move that he so pined for last season, he was still very effective and in the second half of the season completed more key passes 97, more than any other player in the league. His ability to drop his shoulder and daze defences gets him out of many a tight situation seen by his average of 1.8 dribbles per game and the only real question marks lie at his lack of goals where his shooting technique seems inversely proportional to his calm and wonderful passing ability. Last season he only managed four goals from 83 shots giving him a conversion rate of just under 5%. Despite this he was Spurs’ stand out performer and will be incredibly difficult to replace, but not impossible.
Joao Moutinho (FC Porto)
When a manager joins a new club one of the first narratives that the press likes to partake in is linking him with a raid of his former clubs. In this case Spurs have been widely linked with one of the stars of this summer’s Euros, Joao Moutinho. The FC Porto midfielder played as one of the two more advanced midfielder pivots in AVBs all-conquering side two-years-ago. A player with an excellent eye for a pass, who offers creativity as seen by his 2.7 key passes per game, the same as Modric’s score. He also offers huge improvement defensively over Luka with excellent defensive ability with an impressive 3.8 tackles and a brilliant 4.7 interceptions per game.
To put that into context, if he did that in the Premier League he would have had the second highest amount of tackles and the most interceptions. He, like Modric, represents one of the new breed of universal midfield playmakers and would be capable of playing either as part of a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 or in his usual role as a second function/passing midfielder in a 4-3-3. He widely respects the new Spurs boss saying “Villas-Boas is one of the best coaches I’ve worked with”. Not only does he fit in on an ability level with the manager but signing one of his former charges would allow him to have a voice on the pitch, someone who can help spread his tactical philosophy, which he lacked in the disarray at Chelsea.
Likely to be the most expensive of the players looked at in this article, he would add a dash of stardust to the Spurs team and would be the most exciting to the fan base, however, a speculated fee of €35m will make the deal unlikely with the fee inflated by his performance at the European Championship.
Ever Banega (Valencia)
The 24 year old Argentina international looks like an excellent option to replace Modric should he leave. Currently plying his trade at Valencia, his season was cut short last year due to a freak injury where he ran over his own foot with his car. Putting aside questions about his concentration off the pitch, he possesses a clever footballing brain and his passing stats show what an excellent player he is.
Due to their financial predicament, Los Che may have to sell the little midfielder and his time injured may have lowered his value. Another bonus with Banega is that he is used to playing in a slightly more withdrawn role to Modric which suits the 4-2-3-1 formation that Villas-Boas has been trying to institute. His defensive abilities would supplement either Sandro or Scott Parker in protecting the back four. He would allow Spurs to keep a calming influence in midfield as he would set the tempo like Modric.
This is shown with his highly impressive 76.4 passes per game which, if transferred to the Premier League, would be higher than any other current player apart from Mikel Arteta. He is one of the players that Spurs would be able to attract, the most similar to the little Croat and with age on his side, he could be the perfect replacement.
Nuri Sahin (Real Madrid)
In football a week is a long time and a year is an eternity. Like the new Spurs manager, Nuri Sahin was one of the most sought after talents in the game only 12 months ago when he agreed to join Villas-Boas’ former boss Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid in what most people saw as a real coup. He failed to make any sort of impact making only two league starts and came off the bench twice as Madrid overcame Barcelona to win the title.
A disappointing season, hampered by injury, and with a whole range of other top options ahead of him, he has been told he may leave the Madrid based club. This should not distract from what an excellent player the Turkish midfielder is. Like Banega, he is comfortable playing deeper than Modric, again this would suit the apparent switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Despite playing as part of the double pivot he still manages to be a real creative force managing an extremely impressive 3.5 key passes per game two-years-ago in the Bundesliga.
Factoring in the similarity in styles between his former manager Jurgen Klopp and Villas-Boas, both young tactically minded progressive coaches, he should be able to slot straight into the side without much of an issue. Sahin is a target for local rival’s Arsenal but with the Madrid giants frantically attempting to add Modric to their ranks it might be worth pushing for Sahin to be made a makeweight in the deal. Probably the most exciting option, a player who will be hungry to revive his career and return to the form that saw him become stand out player in a Dortmund side featuring Shinji Kagawa and Mario Gotze.
Moussa Dembele (Fulham)
An interesting option is that of the graceful Belgian international currently playing in West London. While Clint Dempsey may have taken home all the accolades for his goal scoring prowess last season, it was Dembele who made the club by the river such a joy to behold. He is an elegant silky player who deserves a chance to light up the biggest stage.
His balletic skills are a delight to watch managing 2.2 dribbles per game, the sort of player the fans at White Hart Lane would really respond to. His performances are a key reason for Fulham’s strong end to the season. A worry does lie with his end product, however, with him only managing a paltry two goals and two assists stemming from only 1.6 shots and 1.4 key passes per game.
This stat that would have to be greatly improved on if he were to change the white of Craven Cottage for the Lilywhite of Spurs, as does the lack of range in his passing with him making 1.3% of his passes long 1/10 the percentile amount Modric completed. However, he is deceptively strong defensively; making an excellent 3.1 tackles per game and would be someone who could hit the ground running with 2 years of Premier League experience already attained.
James Morrison (West Bromwich Albion)
Another potential player to look at from the Premier League was one of the unheralded stars of last season, James Morrison, who had a very strong year helping West Bromwich Albion to a solid mid-table finish. The midfielder, who managed a tally of six goals and six assists, really found his groove playing for Roy Hodgson’s team. He is the sort of clever energetic player who could make the step up to the next level. His industry has never been in doubt and despite having technically his strongest season attacking wise and becoming a shining light for West Brom he still managed 2.2 tackles and 2.2 interceptions on average per game.
Economically he would be the cheapest option of the ones examined, and his two key passes per game and two shots per match bear out that he is a player who can have a big impact on games and can offer a spark of life into a side. The major concern with him would be that he is the only player listed who does not make an average of at least 50 passes per game. He only managed 39.4, which if replicated at Spurs, would cause a huge deficit in passes completed something the AVB game plan would be built on. He may not be the most glamorous or even the most ideal signing but he could be a prudent one. After a much improved season last year, Spurs could do a lot worse than look at the Scottish midfielder.
Promotion from within
Of course, Spurs have do not necessarily have to spend to replace Modric and depending on when an appropriate offer is received may not have time to sign a replacement. Another option would be using what is already at the club and utilising the squad more effectively than Harry Redknapp managed. Currently Spurs do have a wide array of other options in midfield including Sandro, Parker, Jermaine Jenas and Jake Livermore, who are all capable of playing as part of a double pivot.
However, it must be noted that none of them are similar options to Modric nor possess anywhere near the same ability or class. Additionally there are two more attacking options in Rafael van der Vaart and Gylfi Sigurdsson who are expected to fight it out for a place behind the main striker, though one of them could, in theory, play in a deeper role.
In the case of Sigurdsson he made his scintillating impact at Swansea playing ahead of two deeper lying midfield players scoring a superb total of seven goals after signing on loan in January and it would be fair to assume he has been signed to play in the role he had such an impact in for the Swans.
Question marks are already being raised about van der Vaart’s suitability to play under Villas-Boas, despite being one of Spurs’ most dangerous players since his dramatic move from Real Madrid two years ago. It is well known that he is not someone who adheres to tactical discipline particularly well and has been described by Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox as a “Tactical Anarchist” this factored in with a high intensity pressing game that Villas-Boas likes to employ, leaves a question mark about him in his favourite position let alone in a deeper role that he has at times filled for his country.
The most feasible option from within the club would probably be Tom Huddlestone, who was one of Spurs’ stand-out performers alongside Modric in the 2009/10 season when Spurs clinched Champions league qualification. Known for his incredible range of passing and his tendency to smash in a spectacular goal from long distance, averaging 2.5 shots per game, the young midfielder has been unfortunate with injuries, but would be a possible selection alongside Sandro in the double pivot which would offer real physicality in the midfield.
Question marks remain over his ability to dictate a game and his pace which would, like van der Vaart, make him ill-suited for the pressing game Spurs will most likely play. He does offer though with his range of passing someone who will be able to play the ball out quickly to the wings and be able to launch counter attacks with 23% of his passes being long ones. With Spurs looking to play directly during transitions, with the full backs given more license to attack under AVB, his passing range would be a real boon.
Huddlestone is a player who, if he stays fit, will be like a new signing for Spurs, though he needs to develop his game further to improve on his exceptional season two-years-ago. If he can live up to the promise that he has shown it could mean that Spurs do not need to sign a replacement and the money could be used to bolster the goalkeeping department, and attack with two strikers and a winger also top of Spurs’ priority list between now and the end of the season.
Spurs will hope to keep hold of their talented Croat, who still has another four years left on his contract. He will stay at least until January unless another club meets Daniel Levy’s valuation. Spurs should be pragmatic enough to realise that the player should be sold once the offer is greater than his utility on the pitch.
With time passing the chances of him staying increase though are still remote at this point. The fact is he is still under contract until a move is completed and the manager has been mooting that Modric will be back working with first team in the near future. With the realisation that Spurs might be starting the season with an ill-fated and unsuited pair of Jenas and Livermore dawning on fans after the Valencia friendly, this is something the majority will applaud. Villas-Boas said that “It is important that, in the coming days, he understands he must return to the first team. We respect the player’s ambition, but he must also respect the club” can only be a positive as Spurs may need a fully motivated Modric if they are to triumph in a trick opening fixture.
If he does end up staying the chances are that he will put his head down and work for the team as he did last season. The question remains will the fans be as forgiving this time as they were a year ago? If he does go, which still seems the most likely outcome, Spurs need to act quickly to avoid a repeat of the Dimitar Berbatov fiasco which saw panic buys of Roman Pavlyuchenko and Frazier Campbell leaving a real shortage of quality and options at the club. A shortlist of preferred signings has to be Sahin, Moutinho and Banega who seem the best fits, based on ability on the pitch, with the other two mentioned being premier league experienced functioning players that could theoretically do a decent job rather than players Spurs should necessarily sign although I personally feel that Dembele has the potential to be a good signing.
The final thing is to consider values and age of the players. The three stars plying their trade abroad are all 25 or under making them a prime age for signings as discussed in the marvellous Soccernomics book that players in their early 20’s offer better value for money. While Moutinho is currently the best out of the three, he is also the most expensive due to his reputation and his form at the European Champions making Spurs unlikely to be able to complete a deal for the managers pick.
This leaves Banega and Sahin both young and hungry players, with something to prove for different reasons. Out of the duo, Sahin would theoretically be the cheaper option and would have more to prove after a disastrous period at Real, factored in with Madrid looking to offload and wanting to replace him with Modric; it makes logical sense for the club to sign him. However, Sahin has shown a preference for Arsenal, which would leave Banega as the last remaining option and as the player who is the most statistically similar to Modric, he would be an excellent like for like replacement who would arguably be more suited to playing in the new 4-2-3-1 system which the manager has been using in preseason than Modric is.
I would be disappointed if Modric were to go, he is, with Bale, my favourite player at the club and is easily the most gifted central midfielder I have had the privilege to see play at the Lane. However if Spurs get the right price and invest it correctly there is no reason why this has to stop them progressing under the new manager.
This article also appears on Football Speak
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