Jermain Defoe has joined Michael Dawson as Tottenham sacrifices to England's Euro 2012 cause. While Dawson's sprained knee will keep him out six weeks, Defoe's undergone surgery for torn ankle ligament, sidelining the attacker for three months. Combined with last week's acquisition of Rafael van der Vaart, the injury's flamed speculation: Spurs might have to make drastic changes. But before going there, it's important to note the significance of Defoe's loss.
Spurs will be without their leading goal scorer, somebody who tallied ten more league goals than any of his teammates. That's not a Darren Bent-Sunderland dependency, but when a team that finished last season three points into Champions League loses 27 percent of its goal scoring, the effects scale beyond the mere potential to drop points. Defoe's short-term absence could prove decisive in this year's fight between Tottenham and Manchester City.
Spurs can't just ride out Defoe's injury. They need to make up those goals, and although our instincts (and that phrasing) say Redknapp should find somebody to fill the 27 percent he's lost, Tottenham has other options. Spurs need to make up the functional goal difference1 as much as the actual goals, and for a team that allowed 41 last season, developing a more defense-minded approach could prove more viable. Finding goal scorers is hard. Playing midfielders deeper and adding a second holder is not.
That idea puts an option like Sandro in a new light, though Tottenham has no dearth of alternatives. If Redknapp determines his best course of action is to try and replace the goals, he can give more time to Robbie Keane, Roman Pavlyuchenko, or Giovani dos Santos. We could also see van der Vaart used toward that end, should Redknapp embrace tweaks to his two forward formation. If Harry wants to tweak the formation yet lean toward goal prevention, we would see Wilson Palacios or Sandro getting regular starts along side Tom Huddlestone.
While it sounds cliched, it's true: Each of these options carries their own costs and benefits.
Giovani dos Santos - Though Robbie Keane would be above him on Redknapp's depth chart, dos Santos is the closest to a like-for-like. Perhaps Keane's skill-set is more similar to Defoe's, but if you think about it in terms of the team's shape, dos Santos is more likely to be in the spaces typically occupied by Defoe, whether that be in a high, right-leaning position along the line or in a more traditional, supporting role. The spaces in which Luka Modric and Aaron Lennon are used to operating will be preserved.
That's the main benefit, one augmented by dos Santos's skill and potential, but the downside is the idea that he may never fully adjust to English football. That's why relying on dos Santos may present the biggest risk of all six options. He could fully replace Defoe's output with his goals as well as the goals he creates for others. He could also be the same, ineffective player we've watched since he was bought from Barcelona.
Robbie Keane - Keane's experienced. He knows his teammates, the league and the system. As a frequent armband-toter and an accomplished, veteran player, he's accepted by his peers. He is the safest best on the list.
The problem: He may not be that good. You can safely assume that he will score a goal here-or-there, but he's not somebody that's going to back 23 goals in 54 matches, as he did the season before he left for Liverpool. He's also not going to create a lot of chances for his teammates. Keane may top-out at a goal-in-three (he has 14 goals in 40 all-competition matches since rejoining Spurs), but given he is unlikely to augment that total in other ways, Keane may prwsent too much of a step-back for a three-month replacement.
Wilson Palacios - A year ago, Palacios was a regular and one of the best destroyers in the Premier League. Now he's part of a rotation and is not first choice for the biggest matches. He's the sacrifice Harry's made to feature Gareth Bale on the left side, but if Palacios were to come back into the team in Defoe's stead, it would likely be as part of a five midfielder set-up. That would be a drastic change for Redknapp, but if Harry concludes he can't get enough goal scoring from his other options, the drastic change would prove the best option, as Palacios's inclusion would do the most for Spurs' goal prevention.
Roman Pavlyuchenko - On that hypothetical depth chart, Pavlyuchenko gets listed with Peter Crouch, but that doesn't mean they can't play together. The Russian's better than Crouch at playing in wide areas, winning balls on the flanks and creating or laying off for others. Because he can be effective in those spaces, Pavlyuchenko and Crouch playing together poses little problem.
It's actually Pavlyuchenko and Bale that's a bigger worry, as Pavlyuchenko tends to favor the left side, going into and dwelling in the spaces the Welsh phenom dominates. Bale's been dangerous cutting-in from the left, but it's unclear how he'd adjust his game to periodically having a more crowded flank. In contrast, Defoe goes right more than left, a flank where he and Aaron Lennon have developed a good feel for each other's movements, leaving Bale to blossom (with help when Modric shades).
Pavyluchenko's work ethic will also, always be a concern. The criticism's hounded him throughout his career, and while Pavlyuchenko is the most talented option on this list - the player most likely to replicate Defoe's production - his inconsistency combined with the potential disruption to Bale diminishes the value of Double Bean Pole.
Sandro - Like dos Santos, this is another high-risk option with an unproven player, though choosing Sandro would have the safeguards of moving to a more crowded midfield, inserted a more defensive player whose style is a better fit for the league than Gio's. He would add a box-to-box profile that would leave Tom Huddlestone to do what he does best: hold, distribute, blast.
But that's all theory. Sandro has yet to make a competitive appearance for Spurs. While he acquitted himself well for Internacional (particularly in this year's Libertadores), he has yet to bed into the Brazilian national team. He is still green to the challenges of major international football.
Based on what we saw at Internacional, it seems unlikely Sandro's ready for consistent time. Perhaps he can be spotted - played when the opposition's personnel presentsfavorable circumstances. We have no reason to believe he is ready to take the bulk of Defoe's playing time. If Redknapp goes to a fifth, non-attacking midfielder, Palacios is the better bet.
Rafael van der Vaart - But if an attacking midfielder is what you want, the newest Spur is your guy. Still, in the context of discussing a Defoe replacement, it's better to think of van der Vaart as an advanced attacker. Midfielder, forward, supporting striker, winger, wide attacker - sure. Maybe. It would depend. The point: van der Vaart is not one of the three forward options, nor is he one of the two deeper midfielders. He will play at the level behind Crouch but in front of Huddlestone (though that's better thought of as levels).
The benefit to including van der Vaart: he may be the best performer of the lot. There are,however, two potential pitfalls.
By his own admission, van der Vaart's style may not lend itself to the Premier League. Going from the Netherlands to Germany to Spain, he has never had to engage in the type of midfield battles he'll see in England. Karl Henry and Joey Barton may be salivating.
But secondly, the issue that everybody's discussed since van der Vaart's acquisition: The way Spurs are currently set-up, can he play with Luka Mordic. If you were starting a team with these two, no problem. It's just a question of who plays centrally and who plays wide. With Gareth Bale playing so well and Aaron Lennon a one-position pony, sacrifices have to be made to incorporate van der Vaart. Do you play him out-of-position as a forward in a two forward system? Do you move Modric wide, Bale back? Do you change formation entirely? All of these options carry costs.
You can't consider these choices without considering the opposition, and opponents change. Game-to-game, match-up-to-match-up, the best option will change, particularly when fitness is factored-in. Palacios and Pavlyuchenko seem the safest options options save Keane, whose choice would be acquiescing to a step back. Sandro and Gio carry too many unknowns for a team whose margin for error is no greater than three points, while van der Vaart is the wild card. Ideally, Spurs will have matches that will minimize the risks of tactics built around a van der Vaart. The information gleaned from those instances could eventually make the Dutchman's inclusion less speculation, more certainty.
1 - If you're reading this, you're probably curious about either the emphasis on "difference" or the entire term - functional goal difference. The emphasis on difference is purely tonal. I've doing it to enhance the contrast, but the terminology is a vague allusion to using a Pythagorean model to evaluate goal difference. This isn't the place to explain that (it's not that big a deal, most of you are aware of it, anyway) but it's important to wink-to because for a team with Tottenham's goal distribution, a goal prevented is more valuable than a goal scored when considering win/point expectation.