x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rafael van der Vaart's just wild about Harry

As managerial praise goes, the words the Dutchman chose this week to describe his enthusiasm for life under Harry Redknapp seemed slightly unusual.

Rafael van der Vaart is happy with life under Harry Redknapp.
Rafael van der Vaart is happy with life under Harry Redknapp.

As managerial praise goes, the words Rafael van der Vaart chose this week to describe his enthusiasm for life under Harry Redknapp seemed slightly unusual. Tottenham Hotspur's grand summer signing loves life at White Hart Lane, it appears, precisely because his coach pretty much leaves him alone.

There are no detailed strategic instructions, not many complex training ground drills. Nothing much more than a starting position and a pre-game pep talk.

"Harry is a very special man, that's why I already feel at home at Spurs," said Van der Vaart. "It feels like I'm back on the street. There are no long and boring speeches about tactics … there is a clipboard in our dressing room but Harry doesn't write anything on it.

"It's very relaxed. The gaffer gives us the line-up 20 minutes before we go out to do our warm-up. And the only words he speaks to me are: 'You play left or right, work hard, have fun and show the fans your best'.

"Then the defenders get an instruction about who to mark at corners and free-kicks - and that's it. It's not that we do nothing, but it's close to that."

Many a modern coach would take offence at such praise, but not Redknapp. The Englishman's methods can be as old-school as his manner. The training ground is primarily a place of observation with day-to-day sessions led by a group of long-term assistants.

Building a team is, for Redknapp, about bringing together as many high-quality- and preferably, experienced - performers as possible, then working out a way to fit them into a starting 11. Tactical tweaks are not entirely absent, but detailed match preparation is not a particular strength.

Ask Redknapp about Van der Vaart's double-edged adulation and there is not a hint of upset. "I encourage him to play," Redknapp said yesterday. "Rafa's got very much a free role with us. We want to get him on the ball as much as we can because when he's on it things can happen. I'm sure as a player when you're given that freedom it's got to be enjoyable. He's been very important. He is a 16- or 17-goal-a-year man, really; he'll score as many goals as most out-and-out strikers and he also gives you the other side of his game where he links the play up.

"You get two in one, almost, with Rafa."

The difficulty with the Dutchman is where to play him. Start Van der Vaart anywhere in a midfield four and he tends to drift out of position, further opening up an already overly generous Tottenham defence. His skills are most suited to operating behind strikers, but Redknapp can rarely afford to play two, and does not possess one suited to running the line alone.

Jermain Defoe should return early from ankle surgery to take a substitute's place against Arsenal this afternoon but is generally considered too small and selfish to take on such a specialised job.

While Redknapp would like to buy himself out of the problem, his chairman is conscious that Tottenham already employ more experienced professionals than any of their rivals.

Moreover, the club have yet to break ground on a stadium rebuilding project which recently grew by £50 million (Dh293m) in projected cost. Player sales will be expected to fund purchases and it was notable that Redknapp did not rule out the January transfer of Niko Kranjcar if the money is right.

Part of the manager's public popularity is an enduring ability to act like a fan. Tottenham have taken just five of the last 15 Premier League points and failed to win at Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool in 68 attempts. Yet emboldened by last weekend's high-scoring defeat of Blackburn Rovers plus the ongoing frailty of the division's traditional powers, Redknapp is prepared to discuss his team winning the title.

"I think the league is wide open this year, I really do," he said. "If we could have a run and pick up some big wins and get ourselves in there, it's not impossible. Of course not. I said last year we could finish in the top four. I'm not saying we are going to win the championship, but it is not impossible.

"We finished a couple of points behind Arsenal last year. In the end there was nothing in it, at the death it got very close. So if we can pick up a couple of wins there's no reason we can't make a challenge this year."

sports@thenational.ae