Jermain Defoe or Rafa van der Vaart?
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“Yes, it does seem to be a problem. Rafa can’t run back and chase the full-back. Against the better teams it is a problem.
Rafa’s best position is in the middle, playing just behind the front man. The only problem is that Jermain Defoe plays there too and Jermain is playing very, very well at the moment.
So, I guess I have got a decision to make, haven’t I? I suppose it’s now between Rafa and Jermain over who plays in the team.
Rafa is a terrific footballer. He has great skill. But if you’re in the team and asked to do a job, really, you should just do it.”
There were Harry Redknapp’s comments this week in The Sun, after van der Vaart had questioned the logic of playing him on the right.
Of course football is a squad game, and players rarely play in every match anymore. It is also great to have these sorts of selections dilemmas – a player as good as Sandro would not be on many benches (he’d be in my starting XI nine times out of ten!), and Defoe would be a regular in the majority of Premier League teams.
Assuming that Adebayor is a mainstay in the side (and he certainly should be at the moment), Redknapp has two options when picking his strongest eleven – if he wants to play Defoe, he can play van der Vaart on the right, as against Arsenal. If he decides, as he seems to have in the comments above, that this not appropriate, he needs to choose between the two for the second striker role.
In this article I will compare van der Vaart and Defoe, but first I would like to look at van der Vaart’s performance against Arsenal.
1. Rafael van der Vaart play on the right in a 4-4-2
Against Arsenal we almost played a combination of 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, but with Parker and Modric as the two “holding players”. Clearly Modric is not a disciplined holder (and we wouldn’t want him to be), so Parker was left doing a lot of the leg-work in midfield. Van der Vaart drifted from his starting position of right midfield (as we expected that he would), and did it to good effect in the attacking third – scoring once, feeding Parker for a one-on-one chance, and also being heavily involved in Adebayor’s excellent one-on-one chance.
Defensively, though, he has been questioned by many. In my Analysis of the goal conceded against Arsenal (02/10) I point out that he is slow to close Song down. However, this goal essentially stemmed from a corner, and then our failure to re-organise as a team – van der Vaart actually chases Song from the other side of the penalty area, whilst no other players react or try to get close to him. To say, then, that this goal came about due to the nature of the formation is incredibly harsh. What is fair, though, is that Arsenal had a lot of possession, and could have used the ball better down our right, with Walker having little protection ahead of him.
My solution (and I pointed this out pre-match), would have been to play Sandro and Parker holding, as per the Wigan game. With Modric, Bale and van der Vaart inter-changing ahead of them we have plenty of offensive options, whilst with two dedicated holders, we are able to cover the central areas whilst also able to cover the full-back areas where necessary – this is often the case in 4-2-3-1 formations, where full-backs push forward to provide width. However, this would have involved dropping Defoe, which takes me on to my second point.
2. Defoe or van der Vaart?
Redknapp states that Defoe is playing “very, very well” at the moment. This could be a classic case of a manager talking up a player to help build his confidence, but it could be that Redknapp genuinely thinks that Defoe is in red hot form (as many fans also seem to think).
Looking at Defoe’s contribution this season, it’s firstly important to note that he has already scored two league goals – half of his contribution last season. It is good to see him scoring again, and long may it continue.
The minutes per goal or assist for Adebayor, van der Vaart and Defoe, however, is interesting:
Emmanuel Adebayor 355 total mins 3 goals 2 assists – 71.00
Rafael van der Vaart 367 total mins 2 goals 2 assists – 91.75
Jermain Defoe 390 total mins 2 goals 1 assist 130.0
The minutes per goal, where many would suspect that Defoe would have better stats, is also interesting:
Emmanuel Adebayor 355 total mins 3 goals 118.3
Rafael Van Der Vaart 367 total mins 2 goals 183.5
Jermain Defoe 390 total mins 2 goals 195.0
Obviously it is early days, but this follows the pattern from last year, where Defoe’s “productivity” (to put it crudely) was well below that of van der Vaart and Pavlyuchenko.
In contrast to Redknapp’s “very, very good” I have regularly been tweeting that Defoe has been on the periphery of games, albeit working hard to pressurise defenders (which should be a bear minimum). I thought it would be interesting to look at his involvement in our play in our league games so far – thanks to WhoScored.com there are stats available on the number of touches each player has in games.
- Against Manchester United, Defoe had the least number of touches of any player (from either team). NB: Walker and Corluka played 45 minutes each, so I combined their touches.
- Against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Defoe also had the least number of touches of any player (35 – the next least for Spurs was Friedel with 58).
- Against Liverpool, only Kranjcar (28) had less touches than Defoe (34), and he had 40 fewer minutes on the pitch.
- And finally, against Arsenal, Defoe had the least touches of the ball (36) of all of our outfield players (including van der Vaart (39), who played 26 minutes less).
I will not try to suggest that touches of the ball show the impact that a player has in a match, but it is certainly a valid criteria on which one can judge a player’s involvement. A striker cannot always be expected to have constant involvement, but van der Vaart managed 81 touches in his 81 minutes against Wigan, playing just a little deeper than Defoe did against Arsenal (see image below). Clearly Arsenal and Wigan are very different teams, but 81 touches is more than twice Defoe’s maximum number of touches in a game so far – van der Vaart gets far more involved when he plays the second striker role.
Taking into account all of the stats – goals, assists and involvement in play – Redknapp’s summation makes me wonder – if Defoe is playing “very, very well”, how does he think van der Vaart is doing?
Many will argue that it is too early in the season to start judging any of our players. I would therefore add that last year, when partnered with far inferior strikers to Adebayor, van der Vaart managed 13 goals and 8 assists in 28 starts in his first season in the Premier League.
Defoe has only bettered that Premier League goal tally once in his entire career, when he scored 18 goals two years ago (of course eight of those goals were scored in two games – against Wigan and Hull). He got 8 assists in 2002/3 his most in the last five years is 4.
Defoe certainly has a place in some games, but in games where we need to select our best eleven players it’s a no-brainer for me – van der Vaart scores as many (or at least nearly as many), gets more assists, and has more influence on our play. He doesn’t always have the stamina to last 90 minutes, and he isn’t the most mobile but in my opinion he should be one of the first names on the team sheet.