An Evolving Tottenham Culture: Berbatov, van der Vaart, and Changing Times
Modern Tottenham supporters have much to be thankful for. Daniel Levy’s steady hand is guiding them towards New White Hart Lane and Mauricio Pochettino has a fighting fit squad competing at the peak of the English game.
Spurs are, in many ways, the antithesis of their past. If once they were known for a kind of ethereal flair, now they are a side of undeniable substance. Every ball is fought for, every yard is run; while pockets of quality clearly exist, they exist within an iron-like casing and live according to see of honest principles.
But who doesn’t still long for Dimitar Berbatov?
Forget the way he left and the acrimony which preceded that departure and remember what he was. Consider also that, really, he is Harry Kane’s exact opposite: a forward who exuded indifference and played as if the game came naturally to him. Kane does not make the game look, quite the reverse. To watch him play is, yes, to see goalcoring talent, but to also be aware of the thousands of hours of training ground grind that have brought him to this place. He plays like someone intent on extracting the very most from his ability, thundering around the pitch after every lost cause and hopeless situation.
If, in forward terms, Berbatov was a slap of perfect timing and impeccable finesse, Kane is a full-blooded punch to the face. One left the field without a hair out of place, the other as if he had played 90 minutes inside a carwash.
It’s interesting, then, to note how tastes have changed. The Bulgarian was once the apple of Tottenham’s eye, a goalscorer of exuberant class with a touch to die for, and who seemed so perfectly aligned with the club’s ethos – the very player imagined when White Hart Lane’s pre-game montage was written. He was the “picking of the lock”. But now, Kane is the object of those affections and closest link to an updated sense of identity. He’s loved for his local roots and died-in-the-wool loyalty, but also for his palpable commitment to his club’s cause.
Rafael van der Vaart, too.
The Dutch midfielder seemed to be cherished as much for his flaws as he was his ability. His left foot may be among the finest to ever swing in north London, but part of his allure was defined by his fragility; he was never more than a quick sprint away from a muscle injury and that, perhaps, accentuated his luxury. It was impossible to resist the exotic charm of his periodic flourishes and White Hart Lane was effortlessly seduced.
So for Berbatov and Kane, read van der Vaart and Christian Eriksen.
Eriksen is a cultured player who, while not stylistically comparable, is capable of van der Vaart-like moments. He too has a strong goalscoring instinct and possesses that mid-to-long range flair which supporters will always love. But, interestingly, he isn’t afforded the same grace by the watching crowd. When he is weak in the tackle, the groans come tumbling down from the stands. And when he tries something low percentage, the fans will voice their displeasure if it doesn’t come off.
Van der Vaart was easier to love (and forgive). Rarely, if ever, has a Spurs player enjoyed such an immediate rapport with the supporters and, yes, he played with a palpable enthusiasm which Eriksen can sometimes lack. But despite that, it clearly represents the emergence of a different standard: the idea of prime era Berbatov is desirable, but in the contemporary context he would likely be very frustrating. Van der Vaart represents a similar dilemma: Tottenham’s changing standards mean that if he were to rejoin the club tomorrow, again as 27 year-old, he would be less a cult hero and more…Heung Min Son. Decadently talented, but made to appear flakey by association. Consigned to the substitutes’ bench until he learnt certain responsibilities.
Perhaps the crux of this lies in the eradication of an inferiority complex. Supremely talented as those players were, there was more than a hint of gratitude to the way the fans tugged at their shirts. The club had recently emerged from a long, joyless malaise and, like the insecure lover in a lopsided couple, the crowd chose to ignore perfections which, today, would create division. They were wonderful footballers (David Ginola belongs in this conversation, too), but the enduring fondness which exists for them is as much a commentary on the circumstances as it was their ability.
But that’s vanished, which is really something quite remarkable given the timescale involved. Mauricio Pochettino has essentially changed part of the culture at Spurs: not just the playing personality of the first-team, but the way the supporters react to it. Different attributes hold greater weight now than they did before his arrival and certain blue-collar actions on the pitch appear to be worth more to the watching fans.
Effort, resilience, energy, and total commitment; those are qualities typically associated with winning and have little or nothing to do with style.
“We are the fifty-fifty challenge, the 90 yard sprint, and the closing down of the opposition’s centre-backs.”
It’s not quite as catchy and may not induce the same nostalgic goosebumps, but it’s probably more accurate. Spurs are by no means a formulaic side, in fact at their best they’re arguably the best team to watch in the country, but their synonyms are certainly hardening and the standard demanded from their players has unquestionably risen.
“We are the vengeful tackle, the poke in the eye, and the ball-and-all headed clearance.”
Strange, wonderful times indeed.