Last season, us Spurs fans revelled in the extraordinary transformation of Harry Kane into a mega star. As the new season nears, I believe another of our young core, Nabil Bentaleb, could be about to hit superstar status.
Looking back now, Kane’s development was as rapid as it was unexpected. Be honest now, how many of you will admit that you were worried at the start of last season over the prospect of Kane as the third choice striker in case either Roberto Soldado or Emmanuel Adebayor got injured?
Kane’s rise lit up what was otherwise a solid but unspectacular season. The jury is still out on whether Kane can repeat the trick, but personally I don’t think it was a fluke. Simply, I don’t think you can fluke a 30-goal season.
So dramatic was the Kane story, however, I wonder if it overshadowed another monumental event that took place through the course of last season, namely Bentaleb’s rapid growth.
A midfielder’s development is never going to be as sudden as that of a striker as there isn’t one single measure to gauge success like you can a striker with goals. But Bentaleb’s journey, in less than 18 months, from remote prospect to lynchpin at a Top 5 club, is pretty astounding in its own way and has few rivals in the English game at the moment.
I’ve been trying to think of recent comparisons. Jack Wilshire? He started with a bang but never really kicked on and has been slowed by injuries. Aaron Ramsey? Not as quick, and his breakout season was about goals anyway. I can’t think of any development of central midfielders at the Manchester clubs, Liverpool or Chelsea. Everton have Ross Barkley, but he is an attacking midfielder really, while Jack Rodwell is more typical of the path that young midfielders take – promise, a big transfer, lack of fulfilment, a move to Sunderland. My point is, what is happening with Bentaleb is RARE.
In his first half-season, Bentaleb proved that he had talent. Last season, he proved that he belonged as a Premier League midfielder. This season, my belief is that Bentaleb will prove that he has the potential to be a world-class midfielder.
Now, at this point any self-respecting blogger in 2015 would crack open the player radars and undertake a deep dive of the advanced stats to prove that Bentaleb is indeed the bastard child of Yaya Toure and Andrea Pirlo. I love the work of Spurs supporting stats guys like Michael Caley at CFC, James Yorke at Statsbomb and the people at Spurs Statsman, but sadly I don’t know where to even look for advanced stats, let alone gather them and draw any meaningful conclusions.
So, until I up my game, I’m stuck with the cognitive dissonance of old-style, say-what-you-see assessment of a player, and trying to sculpt the potentially conflicting conclusions into what is in all probability a subconsciously preconceived narrative. But for Bentaleb, and where Spurs sit at the moment with a young team and a manager like Mauricio Pochettino, I actually feel there is something to be gleaned from what can sometimes be dismissed as the “intangibles”.
I remember watching Bentaleb’s debut against Southampton, and the collective “Who?” from all Spurs fans bar Windy as he came off the bench with 40 minutes left to replace Mousa Dembele. But in the game, it was immediately apparent that he had something. His passing was very efficient and I don’t think he gave the ball away once. He seemed big and athletic, a real man, not scrawny like many prospects when they first appear. He appeared very calm, and didn’t shy away from involvement.
Bentaleb’s route into the Spurs first team is instructive. Unlike many coddled young wonderkids who populate academies, Bentaleb had to overcome rejection by his hometown club, Lille, before wandering to Mouscron in Belgium and then Tottenham in search of a place on the football ladder. Ask the likes of Alan Shearer what rejection at a pivotal age did for them: it can fuel a fire that burns for a whole career. Bentaleb himself has talked about the pleasure in gaining revenge.
Tim Sherwood’s repeated attempts to get credit for the emergence of Harry Kane have been extremely embarrassing, but no-one would begrudge Sherwood taking the credit for giving Bentaleb his chance. Ironically, the notion that Bentaleb was a Sherwood pet and consequent coldness from the White Hart Lane crowd became another thing that Bentaleb has had to overcome.
Bentaleb is, by every account, a beast in training. With typical hyperbole, Sherwood described Bentaleb as “training like every day was the last day of his life”, but this has been born out in every report and ITK account of how things play out at Hotspur Way on a daily basis. Reports that Deli Alli is going toe-to-toe with Bentaleb in the training stakes are hugely encouraging.
So why does this training attitude matter so much? It’s because in Pochettino, Spurs have a head coach who values training performance more highly that anything. Train well, and you will get the opportunities to play well. Bar Harry Kane, no-one has exemplified this simple philosophy more than Bentaleb.
In the quest to be just a little less Spursy, we need guys like Bentaleb
One of the joys of being a football fan in 2015 is being able to use social media to get access to players. Most players are, sensibly, conservative in what they put on Twitter, but even in limited interactions you get a glimpse of their personality. Harry Kane comes across as level-headed, polite but ambitious, even as his world has utterly transformed in the past 12 months. Ryan Mason appears to be a bit of a football obsessive — he was the one Spurs player tweeting about the Women’s World Cup, for example. Eric Dier comes across as wry and intelligent.
However, Bentaleb is my favourite Spurs tweeter — after every game, he does his #SoldiersNeverSurrender bit, and you can just feel that hunger for revenge bubbling away. In the quest to be just a little less Spursy, we need guys like Bentaleb.
This may be sorely overanalysing just a few tweets, I accept. But in sport, character matters — and in talent identification, character is both one the most important factors, and one of the hardest to assess.
I thought one of the most instructive games last season was the miserable defeat away to Manchester United. It was a dreadful showing — Pochettino was terribly slow to react to Louis van Gaal’s use of Fellaini, leaving Kyle Walker, Ryan Mason and Eric Dier horribly exposed. In this game, Bentaleb contributed to the mess by giving the ball away for a simple goal.
However, once Pochettino belatedly switched Bentaleb onto Fellaini, Spurs improved markedly. The game may have been all over, but still Spurs’ performance in the second half wasn’t too bad. They competed, they stuck at it, and avoided embarrassment. I was disappointed in getting so soundly beaten, and frustrated by Pochettino’s slow reaction, but overall philosophical — inevitably, with a young team, you are going to get matches like this.
The fact that Spurs recovered their poise in the second half, and that Bentaleb managed to draw the sting of a rampant Fellaini, I feel taught us more about the team and Bentaleb long-term than a bad 45 minutes did. Add this character to Bentaleb’s other assets — efficient passing, good ball retention, top-class athleticism and a wand of a left foot — and even an untrained eye such as mine can see that Spurs have something truly special to work with.
Going into the new season, Bentaleb is now the key man in the midfield. We await eagerly a further recruit to the Spurs midfield — but it is clear they are being signed to play with Bentaleb. Last season he had to prove to a new manager that he was a serious player and not just some political pawn in the game between Sherwood and Levy. Bentaleb saw off Capoue and Paulinho, again, and also Stambouli. This season, the path is clear: it’s now about proving not just that he belongs, but that he belongs at the top table.
Of course, as Bentaleb rises up in the footballing world, there may be issues ahead. He’s already been linked, albeit v loosely, with PSG and Barcelona. His contract negotiation felt prolonged and spilled into the public domain. We shouldn’t forget that, while he has come through the academy, he doesn’t have the same connection with the club as the likes of Kane and has seen how cold the world of football can be.
But with his new contract now signed and his status as one of the main men at Spurs, I feel confident in predicting that Bentaleb is going to have a huge season ahead, and us Spurs fans can revel in the glow of not one, but two, budding superstars.