Eight points from his first five games isn’t what new Tottenham Hotspur boss Andre Villas-Boas had in mind. It’s the frustration of home draws against West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City that have really fuelled the doubts over the former Porto and Chelsea coach’s suitability for the White Hart Lane job so early on in his tenure.
Currently in eighth position in the fledgling Premier League table, Spurs have eased the early criticism of Villas-Boas with consecutive wins over Reading and Queens Park Rangers. The season began with a red herring result in the north-east, where Tottenham were the better side at Newcastle United only to be undone by a typically accomplished Demba Ba goal and a penalty won and dispatched by Hatem Ben Arfa, the crowning moments of the home side’s showing.
The game is best remembered for Alan Pardew’s petulant shove on an assistant referee and Steven Taylor’s unorthodox sliding header to goalkeeper Tim Krul, but it should not be overlooked that Spurs put in a good performance of their own and cancelled out Ba’s opener with a goal that showed the value of having a lethal penalty box striker.
Jermain Defoe was quickest to react when his header came back off Krul and the foot of the post, finishing the job from close range to draw Spurs level. In the age of false nines and towering one-man strikeforces, Defoe’s blistering start to the Premier League campaign is a mini-revival for the fox in the box.
It’s a boon for the player, too. Defoe hasn’t enjoyed the career he might have had in different circumstances, or with different decisions. After starting out at West Ham United and scoring with gleeful abandon during a record-equalling loan spell with AFC Bournemouth, Defoe headed for White Hart Lane and embarked upon a transfer market hokey cokey that saw him loaned – technically – to Portsmouth before sealing a permanent move to rejoin former Hammers manager Harry Redknapp at Fratton Park in 2008.
Defoe’s return to Spurs, for all the usual flirty mating rituals, was inevitable. Away from North London Defoe hasn’t always been fully appreciated, written off while Spurs burned their way through Darren Bent, Robbie Keane, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Emmanuel Adebayor, Peter Crouch and Dimitar Berbatov. Excellent strikers almost to a man, this illustrious list has nevertheless failed to kill Defoe’s impact on the Spurs team, even in the wake of Redknapp’s departure.
It’s no coincidence that his best Premier League return for the club – 18 Premier League goals in 2009/10 – was achieved in a season in which he made 34 appearances, 31 as a starter. Four in 22 followed in the next injury-stunted year, but last season he scored 11 goals in 25 games despite starting only 11 (and completing only two of those). There is no denying his potency in front of goal, and yet there has been a perception in recent years that Defoe is neither the player he was, nor a top tier Premier League striker.
One Adebayor signing, five games and four goals later, Defoe is Tottenham’s main man. Villas-Boas has shown faith in his ability to score crucial goals and has been repaid emphatically so far. The goals are classic Defoe, a veritable pick ‘n’ mix of poacher’s finishes and the head-down speculative blasts so familiar in his game.
Even better, he’s doing it for his country too, and it is for the national team that Defoe’s goalscoring form really opens up Roy Hodgson’s options. The quality forwards available to England are few and far between but, with Wayne Rooney out of form and injured, Defoe is currently the diamond in the rough.
The conundrum of how best to use him is one of Hodgson’s most important to solve. Perhaps the most tactically interesting option is to deploy Defoe – hardly a freakishly athletic battering ram of a front man – on his own, or flanked by a pair of wingers rather than a strike partner. Given the players available while Rooney and Andy Carroll are absent, that could easily prove the most appropriate system.
The benefits of playing Defoe alongside Carroll are obvious but a pairing with Rooney presents its own challenges. The other players in immediate contention are Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge, the former a more fitting partner for Defoe because of the latter’s worrying tendency to hold on to the ball for too long or make the wrong decision when moving it on. In light of the goal-happy start to Rickie Lambert’s Premier League career, one can’t help but wonder how Defoe and the Southampton striker might combine in an England shirt.
Regardless of where Defoe fits into the line-up, he’s England’s ace in the pack. Hodgson’s task is to get the best from him, to help him translate his flying club form into goals for his country. Now fast approaching 30, Defoe will be desperate to add to his 51 caps and especially to his 17 England goals.
It’s a very respectable international record, but there really should be even more to come. Defoe has taken effortlessly to the added responsibility of shouldering Spurs’ goal burden without the likes of Keane, Berbatov and Bent to compete with. England need him to step up in the same manner.
(Photo credit: TottenhamFan via Flickr)