Why it makes sense to play Huddlestone in central defence
A game, a season, a career – at whatever scale it’s observed, history turns on the smallest of details. Give Didier Drogba weaker neck muscles and Fabio Capello slacker principles and the scenario at White Hart Lane is probably Harry Redknapp leading Spurs into a Champions League campaign with Luka Modric pulling the strings. Instead, the King is dead (well, retired), ’Arry’s gone, and the Croatian playmaker is all but doing his bienvenidos ball-juggle at the Bernabéu.
With two pillars of the Tottenham spine removed and a third, Scott Parker, recuperating after ankle surgery, Tom Huddlestone will no doubt view late summer as an opportunity to impress André Villas-Boas and, after an injury-ravaged 2011-12, regain a foothold in a squad that appeared to have left him behind, both in playing style and ambition.
While a like-for-like replacement for Modric is unlikely to be found, the presence of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jake Livermore and Sandro, along with the potential arrival of João Moutinho, suggests the makings of a queue. Huddlestone’s supposed niche in the side might not therefore be as straightforward as merely slotting in at central midfield. In fact, it could be that his power and elegance is best utilised as a replacement for Ledley King.
Of course, Tottenham have signed the central defender Jan Vertonghen from Ajax, and the Dutch footballer of the year may or may not adapt quickly. There is also the much-improved Younès Kaboul, Michael Dawson (another sidelined for the majority of last season), and the hot-headed, ageing William Gallas to consider.
Yet the optimal solution could be the 6ft 2in frame of Tom Huddlestone, a move that would also allow a change from the 4-2-3-1 of pre-season toward a progressive ‘Iberian’ form of football favoured by his new manager – a 4-3-3 that he tried and failed to implement at Chelsea, having used it in Porto with Rolando and Otamendi as ball-playing central defenders.
The 4-3-3 may be that of Pep Guardiola’s pre-tinkerings Barça, with an elusive false No9 in Rafael van der Vaart and wide forwards (Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon) who cut into that space, a system that would suit a squad so short on strikers. Or it may be that of Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao: three mobile, versatile midfielders and two quick wingers flanking an orthodox No9 as a punto de referencia (‘reference point’ rather than a target man: Emmanuel Adebayor for Fernando Llorente), dictating shape rather than method.
“Ah, but Huddlestone’s too slow,” come the protestations, despite that proving no impediment to the likes of Sami Hyypiä and Steve Bould, to name but two.
“Not rugged in the tackle,” they say. Well, for those who’ve been comatose for 10 years, with UEFA-monitored card-happy referees protecting the bones of multi-million pound commodities, even here in Britain, the game has evolved to become practically non-contact, with defending as much about interceptions as tackling.
“Not enough experience.” This is always an overstated attribute, far less significant than an understanding with his partner, full backs and screening midfielder(s). And if Huddlestone is looking for a fast-tracked inexperienced model, then who better than Bilbao’s Javi Martínez – notwithstanding the fact that the Basque’s move backward was a long-term expediency dictated by the length and talent in the queue for La Roja’s midfield.
Huddlestone is not competing against so many great midfielders internationally, but his development as a libero would certainly give England another dimension (with the not insignificant caveat that Roy Hodgson is prepared to give up a Stone Age adherence to 4-4-2) and present a new set of problems for opponents used to simply allowing the uncultured centre-half to have the ball.
Certainly, Huddlestone possesses the distribution and ball-carrying abilities that enable both Spanish clubs’ formations to alternate depending on possession. Jonathan Wilson described Barça as playing three-and-a-half at the back in last season’s first La Liga clásico after a tactical shuffle shunted Sergio Busquets – a similar player to Huddlestone and Martínez, if more bureaucratic – to centre-half, removing a chief initiator of attacks from the midfield traffic, and has predicted that the logical response to a rapid increase of false No9s and disappearance of goal poachers would be the re-emergence of the libero.
Given that few Premier League teams play with two out-and-out strikers – certainly not the sort that might forcibly embroil Huddlestone in a game-long examination of his physicality and mettle – Spurs could catch the Premier League on the hop by making their spare defender an attacking prompt rather than a destroyer.
Anyone longing to see England evolve from high-tempo bedlam should hope for the emergence of this potentially statuesque libero – give me your poor, your needy, your Huddlestone passes…
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