NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - AUGUST 18: Jake Livermore of Tottenham Hotspur competes with Jonas Gutierrez of Newcastle United during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur at Sports Direct Arena on August 18, 2012 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
Tottenham Hotspur are probably going to sell Luka Modric to Real Madrid before the summer transfer window shuts, and they're probably not going to have time to purchase a new central midfielder to replace him. The players who have been linked to Spurs most often have been Joao Moutinho and Yann M'Vila, neither of whom would be a perfect direct replacement. Moutinho isn't anywhere near as versatile, and M'Vila is a defensive midfielder with above average technical qualities.
Nuri Sahin has been thrown around as a potential replacement, and for good reason. He's also not as versatile or as polished as Modric, but he's closer to being a direct replacement than either M'Vila or Moutinho. Unfortunately, securing him appears to be very unrealistic, and he'll be off to either Arsenal or Liverpool soon. We can go on about other potential replacements -- Etienne Capoue, Kevin Strootman, Jordie Clasie, and Hector Herrera, who Ryan Rosenbaltt talked about this morning come to mind -- but none of them is an ideal fit. There is no direct Modric replacement sitting around. That's why Chelsea were desperate to sign him last season.
So if there's no such thing as a direct Modric replacement that is going to be easily obtainable over the next seven days, what's the next best alternative? Is it buying one of those very talented, but also very different players and adjusting our tactics slightly to suit them?
Hell no. That costs money, and that's money I'd rather spend elsewhere. If there's no perfect solution sitting around, continuing to play Jake Livermore makes a lot more sense than going out and spending the Leandro Damiao fund on a player that doesn't fit the team's needs any better than Livermore.
On Saturday, Livermore and Sandro started in the center of Tottenham Hotspur's midfield behind Gylfi Sigurdsson. They played adequately, but Newcastle was the better team in the center of the pitch during the second half of their 2-1 win. I don't think that the pair displayed any terrible deficiencies that can't be fixed with some game time together, but my co-editor Brian Mechanick -- and just as a heads up, my three co-editors are getting a lot of time in this piece -- said something extremely contrary to that in his post about how Spurs should go after Sahin.
The pair were hardly poor, playing extremely competently against a tough opposing Newcastle United midfield. But the weaknesses of carrying this pairing through a Premiership season are evident.
"The weaknesses of carrying this pairing through a Premiership season are evident." Ouch. Brian goes on to talk about how Livermore does not accentuate what he believes are Sandro's strengths, and that any player who comes in should fit into a system where Sandro is given less positional responsibility and freedom to run forward. We'll come back to that a bit later, because it ties in quite a bit with something Ryan had to say earlier today.
Sorry for the paragraph jumping, but Brian continues on a little later in his post with the following. The emphasis is mine.
It becomes imperative to find a specific type of midfielder to pair with Sandro to get the best out of him. The key is a tactically disciplined midfielder who is comfortable sitting deep, playing long diagonal balls, and can spring the number 10 (whether Gylfi Sigurdsson or Rafael van der Vaart) into leading attacks.
Wait ... am I crazy, or does that sound a lot like Livermore? If nothing else, he's a tactically disciplined midfielder who sits deep and can play accurate long balls. He might not get forward much, he might not be the best technical tackler and his movement isn't terrific, but I'll be damned if Brian didn't just explain the exact things Livermore does well.
In the case of Livermore's tactical and positional discipline, everyone is either going to have to take my word on that or we'll have to agree to disagree for the time being. To prove or disprove this claim, someone would have to go through and break down a lot of video, something worthy of its own post. For now, we'll just be tackling claims about his capabilities as a deep distributor.
When I listed a bunch of potential Modric replacements above, I neglected to mention one: Yohan Cabaye. It's unlikely that Newcastle would be willing to sell him to a direct rival and that he'd be willing to leave Newcastle for anything less than Champions League football or astronomical wages, but he's been brought up many times on this site as an example of the type of player that Spurs should attempt to find when Modric moves on. Here's a graphic of his passing vs. Livermore's on Saturday, the first of many graphics in this piece taken from the FourFourTwo Stats Zone App. The app and data are free in the UK, and if you're outside the UK, it's well worth the purchase.
As you can see, Livermore attempted more passes than his counterpart, was more accurate with his passes, and more of his passes went forward into the attacking third. Both players were 50 percent on accurate long balls according to WhoScored; Livermore was 3-for-6, Cabaye 4-for-8.
For comparison's sake, let's look at a couple of players from the same fixture last season, Tottenham against Newcastle at St. James' Park. Obviously the personnel, formations and tactics weren't exactly the same, so the passing stats from the games aren't directly comparable, but it's still interesting to look at. Here's what Cabaye did vs. Luka Modric.
Want a side-by-side comparison of Modric and Livermore from the same game? We can do that. They didn't start many games together last season, but here's one they did: Last year's season finale against Newcastle.
Their games are not directly comparable because Modric's starting position was on the left wing, but he is generally plays the same role on the pitch no matter where he is, and no matter who he's playing with. If he's out wide, in a double pivot, playing as an attacking midfielder or playing in a 4-3-3, he performs essentially the same functions. In this instance, his distribution doesn't look any worse than Livermore's.
I want to make it clear that I am not arguing that Livermore is as good of a player as Modric. I'm simply arguing that in these closely related aspects of his game -- short passing, distribution to the flanks and helping to keep possession -- that the drop-off between the two is not very steep at all. There are lots of other things that Modric does that Livermore does not, but he is very competent in these areas.
There's also the longball monkey still lurking in the room, so let's address that: Livermore's long balls are not as good as Modric's, but they're at least adequate.
On this site, the thread for Adebayor's signing got sidetracked with a bit of a midfield debate, which was my fault. Do a search for "Livermore" on the page, find the first comment with his name, and read down for the whole conversation. I've picked out a couple of good comments from that conversation, one I agree with and one that I disagree with.
Sorry, BJ, you're first up.
Anytime we needed distribution out of the back it often was a long ball from one of our cb's or friedel. -BJ The Bossman
Our friends at FourFourTwo Stats Zone and WhoScored are not in total agreement with this!
Friedel was 3-for-9 on longballs, Kaboul was 3-for-5 and Gallas was 5-for-7, but those numbers need a little bit of context. The graphics above provide most of it. Gallas' long balls were all totally sideways and didn't do a lot to advance the attack. The same can be said for all but one of Kaboul's. Between the three of them, Gallas, Friedel and Kaboul connected on three long balls that I would call positive. Livermore's three connected long balls were all positive.
Now, to a comment I agree with. It's not a criticism of Livermore, but we're certainly getting there. Instead, this is a criticism of Gylfi Sigurdsson. Here's what Alec had to say about why the midfield didn't perform during the second half of the Newcastle match.
That's because Siggy wasn't dropping back to help establish play. -Alec_Kamas
Siggy didn't do a whole lot of moving around or touching the ball, period. It was just an off day for him all-around. For funsies, let's check out a heatmap of Sigurdsson's game on Sunday. This is taken from the ESPN FC Gamecast of the match.
This may or may not actually mean something to you. In case it doesn't, I figure I should give you a visual comparison. Here's another ESPN FC heatmap from one of the games that Rafael Van der Vaart played well in last year. From the gamecast of Tottenham vs. Blackburn...
That is quite the difference in touches. For everyone's note, Tottenham is going from right-to-left in Sigurdsson's heatmap on the top, and from left-to-right on Van der Vaart's on the bottom. In this case, not only is Van der Vaart touching the ball more and coming into his half to get the ball, but he's actually getting the ball in the attacking third. Part of this is indicative of something that Van der Vaart does better than Sigurdsson, but part of it is indicative of a failure of the team on Saturday.
This is where we actually get around to criticizing Livermore.
Here's a quote from Bryan Ashlock's awesome post-match analysis of Tottenham-Newcastle. Emphasis is mine.
Livermore has shown in the past that he is a decent passer, but he's no Luka Modric. Throw a player like Modric along side Sandro and suddenly he is the link between attack and defense, and Gylfi's more advanced positioning is a moot point.
This was Livermore's biggest deficiency on Saturday, without question. He was simply unable to find Sigurdsson in the attacking third, or much at all to be honest. Actually, no one was able to find Sigurdsson in dangerous positions very often. Here's Sigurdsson's passes received and passes attempted from the game.
Four of those 21 received passes came from Livermore, and none of them were in the center of the pitch and in the attacking third. Only one of them went into the attacking third at all, when Sigurdsson drifted out to the right hand side. The two had virtually no connection, which was probably Spurs' biggest problem going forward against Newcastle.
If you want Livermore and Modric's connections with the attacking midfielder they're playing with in a nutshell, here it is.
All of Livermore's passes to Van der Vaart in that Fulham game were very safe and short, and they didn't do much on their own to start attacks. Modric's passes to Rafa don't necessarily stand out here, but there's a clear difference between the two, and it doesn't just exist because Modric is playing out wide in this game. It's because he has the confidence in his game to make aggressive passes, and because he knows his role is to find Van der Vaart whenever possible during sustained periods of possession.
These are things that Livermore can and will learn. There's nothing to suggest that he'll never be good enough to find the more advanced midfielder in front of him on a regular basis. No one is disputing whether or not he's a competent passer, and anyone who wants to dispute that needs to read up and give this piece another skim. He doesn't lack technical quality, he just doesn't have the same confidence in his game that Modric does, and he hasn't been asked to play the role of the primary distributor very often. The ability to find Sigurdsson or Van der Vaart is not some magic skill that the likes of Modric and Moutinho were born with, it's something that Livermore is going to learn very easily with more game time.
The other major issue with Livermore's game is one that I'm less confident will improve over time, but also one that some people don't think is an issue at all. Livermore's movement and general ineffectiveness getting forward, when compared against Modric, makes him look like a poor candidate for a Modric replacement. Ryan touched on this briefly today when he wrote about Hector Herrera.
It's not hard to imagine why United and Liverpool want a player like Herrera, but why don't Spurs? With Luka Modric on the way out, Tottenham are on the lookout for a central midfielder to partner Sandro, Jake Livermore or Scott Parker.
All three of them have their issues, be it Sandro's passing, Livermore's struggles to push forward and create from different places or Parker's ineffectiveness in the final third. Those are all things that Herrera does very well and the Mexican's biggest fault, being overeager and pulling himself out of position, is well compensated by any of the other three.
And here's where I jump back to Mechanick's post about Sahin, because there's some disagreement around this site and around all Spurs fan communities about exactly what Tottenham should be looking for in a Modric replacement; M'Vila, Moutinho and Herrera are all very different players that are difficult to compare. They all do different things well, and it seems that a lot of the disagreements on which one Tottenham should pursue stem from this issue:
Sandro has proven himself to be one of the most talented young defensive midfielders in world football. He's extremely athletic, is excellent at breaking up play and quite adept in making late runs forward. However, Sandro's aggression and lack of precise long-range passing causes him to struggle when playing from deep. He excels much more when given the freedom to get forward and pressure the opposition's central midfielders.
That emphasized line is where the fundamental disagreement comes in. I vehemently disagree that Sandro should be the member of a double pivot who has more freedom and gets forward more often, unless his team is very explicitly playing for a draw. That player should be someone who has the technical quality to beat players when he runs at them, play intricate combinations with the attacking midfielder and hit a shot on target once in a while. Sandro is very technically adept for a massive, clattering defensive midfielder, but he simply isn't that player.
Livermore isn't that player either, but he's closer to being that player than Sandro is. Moutinho and M'Vila also are not that player. Herrera is, but he's not any more the finished article than Livermore is. In fact, the biggest difference between the two is where they got their start in professional football, which probably has a lot to do with their playing styles. Both players are late bloomers who have gone from being nobodies to well-regarded players who can start for a solid team in a big European league in just one year. Neither player has played enough games for us to have any idea about what they're going to look like three years from now.
It's also worth noting that all of these players would cost a substantial sum of money -- at least eight figures -- and would not adequately replace Modric. Moutinho does very little getting forward and is inferior defensively to Livermore. M'Vila's distribution is not even close to Moutinho's, is on par with Livermore's, and he's not so much better defensively than Livermore that he's worth spending £15m on. Strootman is not terrific defensively. Herrera and Clasie are raw. Capoue's passing is just adequate. Sahin hasn't played football in a year and would have the highest wages at the club. All of these players are much, much less versatile than Modric. Most of the other potential replacements that fans will bring up are not for sale or out of our price range.
Tottenham are not broke, but they are a club of somewhat limited means, and they don't have a massive bankroll to spend on whoever they want. Even with Emmanuel Adebayor arriving, the club is in need of a striker, preferably a young striker who can play by himself up top. Spurs probably don't have the money to buy a high-caliber player that fits this description and one of the above-mentioned potential Modric replacements. The striker is more important.
Why? Because all of the potential Modric replacements are essentially the same thing, even if they play slightly different roles and have different skill sets. They're all essentially the same thing because all of them do abut 75% of what Modric does very well, out-perform him in some aspect of their game, and come up well short in another. This describes not only every mentioned Modric replacement, but Livermore as well.
None of the players that Tottenham can buy in the next seven days are going to represent a significant enough improvement over Livermore, who doesn't get enough credit for his distribution, to justify their price tags. This is a simple case of opportunity cost. If the opportunity cost of buying a Modric replacement is a striker, then not buying a Modric replacement is a no-brainer. The next best alternative, a new striker and Livermore in the starting XI, is hardly perfect, but it's much better than the first option.
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