It's a question that's cropped up numerous times around Old Trafford in the last few months: why exactly didn't Alex Ferguson go for Rafael van der Vaart in the summer? Had the Dutchman got what he desperately wanted, after all, he'd be lining up in red today. A Manchester United supporter as a boy, Van der Vaart didn't so much issue a come-and-get-me plea as raise a suspender-clad leg to Ferguson.
"The truth is that if you are leaving Real Madrid, there is only one club you can join that is not a step down – and that's Manchester United."
From a football point of view, it also appeared to make a lot of sense. A nominal attacking midfielder of international repute, the 27-year-old Van der Vaart would have provided extra quality in an area of the United team that only really features the 36-year-old Paul Scholes. What's more, at the £7m Tottenham eventually paid for him, Van der Vaart looked to represent the kind of value that Ferguson has long bemoaned as missing from the market. But, despite reportedly taking a look, the United manager passed and spent a million more on Bebe.
The result was that Van der Vaart ended up opting for – in his own words – a "step down". But, individually, he has responded with a massive step-up. Every goal he scores for Spurs seems to skewer Ferguson's logic further. What a twist it would be today if the player that could actually have given Manchester United an extra dimension ends up terminating their unbeaten record.
Except for the fact that, if you look at the truth of Van der Vaart's career, it certainly wouldn't be an ironic twist. A lot of evidence actually backs up Ferguson's decision. For a start, Van der Vaart's white-hot streak at White Hart Lane is out of sync with a flighty career in which he looked no more than a Wesley Sneijder Lite at the top level. There are also still questions as to whether that form is down to a temporary feel-good bounce or an actual blooming of Van der Vaart's abilities. Either way though, it hasn't come from the attacking midfield position United have been found wanting in.
In fact, Van der Vaart has returned to the position where he initially made his name at Ajax. Playing off the main striker or as part of a front three, he broke through with a rate of a goal every other game in his first two seasons in the Eredivisie. As his importance to the team escalated, so too did his influence. By the start of the 2003-04 season, Van der Vaart was captaining the side from the centre of the pitch with Sneijder as his sidekick.
Those days marked out a reputation that has always stayed with him regardless of actual performances. They emphasised his world-class talent, of which there's rarely been any dispute. Much more debatable, however, has been whether he possesses the world-class application to go with it.
Many expected big things, but he instead chose to jump into a relatively small pond. With much of Europe awaiting his next move throughout a moderate Euro 2004 and into the following season, Van der Vaart shocked mentors by moving to Hamburg in the summer of 2005.
Johan Cruyff, among others, was perplexed. "I don't know what to say about it or what he is doing in Hamburg. This would not have been thinkable two years ago. Obviously things have not gone well for Van der Vaart."
Certainly, as Cruyff inferred, there was all sorts of talk about the high pressure Van der Vaart struggled under at Ajax. But he also perhaps justified increasing criticisms of his inability to handle it. Certainly, the move to Hamburg bore all the hallmarks of a quality player looking to coast rather than kick on in his career. Yes, Van der Vaart may have enjoyed a high-scoring rate and hero status in Germany, but the team never finished higher than third in the Bundesliga and failed to deliver a trophy. And this at a time of transition at Bayern Munich.
That form fitted a pattern. Van der Vaart often scored but rarely when it truly mattered. In essence, he only used his talent to occasionally dazzle in games rather than thoroughly dominate them. That continued even when he finally made his big move to the Bernabeu. It may, typically, have been ill-advised to join Real Madrid at a time of so much upheaval in terms of presidents and players. But the greatest evidence against Van der Vaart comes in international football. Once seen as the future of Dutch football, he has underwhelmed at that level. In 40 competitive games for the Netherlands, Van der Vaart has only provided three goals and six assists. More tellingly, when Bert van Marwijk was trying to devise a formation ahead of last summer's World Cup, he briefly considered throwing in all the "fab four" of Van der Vaart, Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. Realising this would leave the Dutch horribly unbalanced without a counterweight like Dirk Kuyt, Van Marwijk decided one had to get to chop. When all were fit, it was always Van der Vaart. And, when he did play, he often just got in Sneijder's way.
That inclination to assume the same positions as the Inter playmaker while also looking inferior led to justifiable descriptions of Van der Vaart as Sneijder Lite. Where the latter knitted teams together and developed into a complete, modern number 10, Van der Vaart continued to appear unfulfilled.
It is to Harry Redknapp's credit then that he has fully restored Van der Vaart's reputation. But that has been – importantly – by playing Luka Modric in the Dutchman's assumed position. With the Croatian directing things and effectively assuming responsibility for the way Tottenham play, Van der Vaart has been left to play on instinct – as befits many of the positions in a Redknapp team. Much further forward and with less constraints to his game, the role suits him if previous comments are anything to go by. "There are no long and boring speeches about tactics, like I was used to at Real Madrid."
Allowed to roam, Van der Vaart has responded in style. Indeed, the types of goals he has scored have been telling. Six of his 11 in the league have come from Peter Crouch knock-downs. Drifting at the edge of the box, Van der Vaart has often ghosted in to finish. And even when he has been returned to the wing, as in the second half of the 3-2 comeback at Arsenal, that has only been to occupy a flying full-back and hasn't involved defensive obligations. In which cases, he's effectively played as a third forward.
In effect, Van der Vaart has excelled in a position of the pitch where Ferguson is already overstaffed. Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney have enough problems ousting each other for the role of second-striker at Old Trafford. It is to both Van der Vaart and Redknapp's credit, however, that the player has given rise to another question for the United fans this season: whether he is finally up there with the likes of Berbatov and Rooney himself.
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