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Rafael van der Vaart – the Dutch maestro who won Tottenham hearts

Tottenham maestro van der Vaart was a special player.

White Hart Lane has been host to several special talents over the years, and Rafael van der Vaart is up there amongst the best.

The period between 2010-2012 for the Premier League is interesting for several reasons. Several marquee players from around the world were coming to England to join the ‘best league in the world’. At the time, Tottenham Hotspur had gained qualification to the UEFA Champions League, thanks to a stellar campaign in the previous year. They were looking for an addition in quality to take them to the next level. Enter, Rafael van der Vaart.

A product of the Ajax youth academy, van der Vaart was a player renowned for his intelligence and eye for a goal. Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham were lacking something special in the final third. An opportunity arose in the dying embers of the summer transfer window, to solve that problem.

van der Vaart’s dream move to Real Madrid was not going according to plan. When Jose Mourinho arrived at the club, he was told that he could leave if a suitable offer came in. The Dutchman’s heart as still set on proving himself with the Los Blancos, however, he needed first-team football. Tottenham were ready to give him that.

And so, in the final hours of the transfer window, he completed a move to Spurs ahead of the new season. A fee of  £8 million for the Dutchman was sufficient to prize him away from Spain. The transfer was a complicated one to complete. Tottenham had to file for an extension due to technical difficulties from their end. Nonetheless, Spurs eventually got the Dutchman’s signature over the line, for a four-year deal.

Making a difference for Tottenham

Redknapp’s side was a team with energy and creativity in the final third. In Luka Modric and Gareth Bale, they had two young midfielders hungry to learn and grow. Therefore, it only seems just that someone like van der Vaart should step in and teach them.

van der Vaart grew up playing alongside another precocious Dutch talent, Wesley Sneijder. Although Sneijder was a more classic playmaker, van der Vaart was a footballer whose origins were street football. The Dutchman’s hero was Brazilian legend Romario, and he always tried to emulate his style.

To simply classify van der Vaart as a playmaker would be doing a disservice to his world-class talents. Although he played as a ‘trequartista’, van der Vaart enjoyed attacking the box as well.

He enjoyed a notoriously good understanding with his forwards over the course of his career. Consequently, at Tottenham, he struck a great understanding with England forward Peter Crouch.

Someone asked me recently who my favourite partner to play with out of anyone would be. I’ve played with and I would say him, (Van der Vaart). We had a good connection

– Peter Crouch, That Peter Crouch Podcast

Important moments and important goals

Although van der Vaart made only 77 appearances over the duration of his two-year spell at the club. He contributed several important goals and assists for Tottenham, in that time.

Playing just behind Crouch as a number 10, van der Vaart enjoyed playing between the lines. He also had great timing when attacking the box for a cross or a pullback.

He wasn’t the most swiftest of players around and therefore, his elite attacking intelligence helped him in this regard. The former Hamburger SV midfielder knew which spaces to attack and how to time his runs. He thought about the game quicker than most on the pitch, which always gave him an extra yard.

Making his debut in September 2010, van der Vaart wasted no time in making a good impressions. The fans adored him and his style of play. The Dutchman thrived on their affection and returned his love with goals.

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van der Vaart’s stellar performances saw him being named the player of the month in October. A good start to life in North London was briefly halted by a hamstring injury. Injuries had always been a major hindrance to his career, since his time at Ajax.

He returned from a hamstring injury against Aston Villa on boxing day. Both goals were part of combinations with Crouch. The first goal came from a layoff from Crouch’s head from a cross from the right. The Englishman knocked it back into van der Vaart’s favorite area and he made no mistake in heading it from close range.

The second goal is one of van der Vaart’s top three favorites for Spurs. Once again, a cross from the right by Lennon to Crouch. The target man then heads it back to the middle of the box for van der Vaart. The Dutchman’s slightest touch takes the ball away from a full-blooded tackle by Richard Dunne.

After that, a rare sight for Spurs fans as van der Vaart rifled it past Brad Friedel with his right boot.

Stepping up against Arsenal

If ever there is an opportunity to become an all-time favourite, it’s in the North London derby. Arsenal versus Spurs. The clash of the titans in the North. Historically, this clash has produced several goals from both sides. And in April 2011, van der Vaart added his name to the fixture’s folklore.

Battling to stay in the race for European places, Spurs welcomed Arsenal to White Hart Lane.

Theo Walcott opened the scoring in the first five minutes after being played through on goal by Cesc Fabregas. Spurs wasted no time in reacting, as van der Vaart equalised two minutes later after a cross from Vedran Ćorluka.

The goal was unique because the Dutchman struck the ball with his right foot. Using his left to bring the ball under control and then slotting it past Wojciech Szczesny in goal. This was a rare sight for those who know his technique well. Even in the big moments such as this, he held his composure, he’s always done so.

Things got worse for Spurs later after Arsenal established a two-goals lead thanks to Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie. Tom Huddlestone scored Spurs’ second just before half-time to make it 3-2. A sumptuous half volley to restore hope into the hearts of the Spurs faithful.

“That was one of my best football nights ever. I felt so free on the pitch, it was incredible. I really think it was one of my best games in my career.”

– van der Vaart, on the 3-3 draw against Arsenal, speaking to inews

Then, Spurs won a penalty in the 70th minute, courtesy of Aaron Lennon. Szczesny’s foul on him while gathering a loose ball led to the decision. The spoils rested on van der Vaart’s mighty shoulders and he dispatched his penalty with great composure. That made it 3-3 and Spurs shared the points in another memorable North London derby.

Making a mark in the Champions League

Spurs progressed from the group stage as group winners in 2010/11. Although Gareth Bale enjoyed a lot of the attention during that campaign, van der Vaart’s contributions were vital.

Spurs had been drawn in a relatively balanced group with Inter, Twente FC and Werder Bremen.

Against Inter at the White Hart Lane, van der Vaart opened the scoring. It was a goal that he had scored many times before, in similar fashion. Crouch and van der Vaart were in line with the Inter defence when Luka Modric was in possession. When the defenders tried to close down the space for him to pass, he found the perfect ball to van der Vaart.

On his left side, the Dutchman wasn’t going to miss and struck it clinically to make it 1-0. Although it is a match primarily remembered as Bale’s show against Maicon, van der Vaart played a crucial role as well.

The former Hamburger midfielder’s experience in Europe certainly added a great value to the dressing room as players looked to him to deliver.

“Maybe it was easier to play [like me] 10 years back, but I also played at that time. I always try to play my own game, I won’t change my style of playing…”

– van der Vaart, after moving to Real Betis

Freedom under Redknapp

With 13 goals and 9 assists in his debut season, van der Vaart enjoyed a stellar 2010/11 league campaign.

And Harry [Redknapp] — he was like your dad. I would give everything for that man; I was really sad when he left

– van der Vaart, speaking to the Mirror

At the time, Redknapp’s system in place allowed a player like van der Vaart to thrive. He had no real defensive responsibilities and had the sole duty of creating chances and scoring goals. He was a luxury player in some ways, but his performances were always up to the mark.

Redknapp was, after Ronald Koeman at Ajax, the only manager who managed to get the very best out of van der Vaart. After Andre-Villas Boas arrived, the Dutchman was told he was surplus to plans. This was disappointing for van der Vaart, who for two years had given his very best to Tottenham.

Even today, he regrets leaving Spurs at the time. Perhaps he wasn’t alone with that feeling either.

Nonetheless, he shall always remain a special player in Tottenham hearts and a favorite of the neutrals as well. For there will never be, another van der Vaart.

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