Following Ledley King’s retirement, Tottenham find themselves without one of the finest centre-backs the Premier League has ever seen. King was invaluable for Spurs at times, and despite his well documented injury struggles, he was able to consistently perform at the highest level.
Tottenham’s new Head Coach Andre Villas-Boas has already added a centre-back to his squad, although the move was set in motion long before the Portuguese arrival at White Hart Lane. Jan Vertonghen, Belgian international, is one of the new faces at Spurs. He joins and already long list of central defenders on the North London club’s books.
Despite their injury problems last season, Spurs have a variety of choices in this department. Experienced heads William Gallas and Michael Dawson, the ever improving Younes Kaboul and the man who spent the second half of last season on loan at Wolves; Sebastian Bassong.
Midfielders Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore have both featured in the heart of defence at times too. Exciting full-back Kyle Walker also played there during his Sheffield United days. But Spurs fans shouldn’t write off another name when picking their team to face Newcastle United for the Premier League opener on August 18th.
Steven Caulker has come through the academy at Spurs and learned his trade through various loans in the lower leagues of English football, often impressing, and picked up a number of England youth caps, amassing 11 under 19 caps and 4 for the under 21’s. He picked up individual awards for his performances on loan at Yeovil Town and Bristol City, but it was last season, while at Swansea City, that he really caught the eye. Caulker managed an impressive 26 starts for the Welsh side, and helped them on their way to 10 clean sheets during their first season in the top flight. King on the other hand, could only manage 21 starts, and Spurs only kept 4 clean sheets during that time.
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The table above shows how the two compared, from a defensive point of view, last season. While Caulker was often more involved, King’s experience and know how often helped him through. Caulker lead the way with tackles, as well as in ground 50-50’s won. But it is often said that Ledley King was one of those defenders that was always in the right place at the right time, his 47 interceptions to Caulkers 34, backs this claim up. It seems King used his experience and guile, to get himself in position to intercept the ball, meaning there was no need for a challenge. This is made even more impressive when King played 574 minutes less overall last season than Caulker.
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From an attacking point of view, neither excelled. Ledley King was rarely seen venturing forward for Tottenham set-pieces last season. Combine this with Tottenham’s poor showing from corners and free-kicks throughout the season, and King was never likely to get many opportunities in front of goal. Surprisingly, King’s pass completion percentage exceeds that of his young apprentice. Swansea were renowned for their fine passing game last season, and Caulker and his defensive partner Ashley Williams were often seen exchanging several passes before playing the ball further forward. Ledley managed to complete an impressive 90.64% of his passes, 755 in total. Caulker wasn’t far behind, completing 86.91% of his passes. But due to Swansea’s desire to keep the ball, Steven played a superb 1401 passes, nearly double King’s total
Caulker’s comfort on the ball is sure to endear him to Villas-Boas, who has always been keen to use ‘ball playing’ defenders, who are able to bring the ball out of defence, or find a team-mate with a pass. Jan Vertonghen is likely to be first choice following his move from Ajax, while Younes Kaboul has gone from strength to strength since his return from Portsmouth. Michael Dawson, rumoured to be favourite to replace King as Club Captain, has just returned from injury and will expect to be involved.
Gallas has shown that despite losing the pace he once had, he can still read the game and was named ‘man of the match’ at old club Chelsea last season, helping Spurs to keep an impressive clean sheet. Sebastian Bassong seems to have been given a fresh start under the new management, and will hope that he can regain the form that saw him form a fine partnership with Dawson on Tottenham’s way to finishing 4th in 2009/10.
Of the six candidates, Dawson seems most likely to not fit into the mould of central defenders that Villas-Boas prefers. But with his heart on his sleeve attitude and bravery that he brings to each performance, it would be foolish to count him out yet.
Should Caulker and Team GB make the final, he will be away from Tottenham until at least the week before the Premier League curtain raiser at Newcastle on August 18th. Add this to the fact he’s spent the majority of his time at Spurs away from the club on loan, it leaves us wondering if he’ll be able to blend back into the squad.
With question marks still hanging over several members of the Tottenham squad, as well as the ongoing Luka Modric saga, there is likely to be a lot of business still to be done at White Hart Lane, possibly commencing upon the squad’s return to London. Of the six central defenders available, Sebastian Bassong looks most likely to depart the Lane. Bassong has, however, seen a lot of game time in pre-season for Spurs, often featuring as an alternative left-back option to fellow Cameroonian Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
William Gallas has been linked with moves abroad, including to the MLS. The Frenchman has just a year remaining on his contract, and may be tempted by a lucrative move away from Spurs. Kaboul looks set to be a mainstay at Tottenham for years to come, improving virtually every week, while Dawson has said on several occasions how much he loves the club.
With all these established, experienced defenders at the club, will Caulker get a look in this season, or will he have to make do with another loan deal? The new contract handed to him by Villas-Boas until 2016 makes me think he’s likely to be involved with the Tottenham first team this season and not spend another year away from the club. He stood out in the Premier League last season, to fans and pundits alike. Spurs are likely to play a huge amount of games this season, with Villas-Boas confirming he plans to take each competition as serious as the next. Along with the injury problems that seem to haunt the North London club every season, it is likely that all six will see plenty of game time, whether it be in the Premier League, FA or Carling Cup, or in the Europa League.
Ledley King made a difference to Spurs every time he stepped onto the pitch. James Amey compared how Spurs fared with and without King in the side in his superb piece on the Tottenham legend. While Spurs may have conceded on average 0.1 of a goal more, the most impressive stat was amassing 127 points from 71 games with him in the past four seasons, compared to 125 without him from 81 games. Broken down, that’s an incredible 1.8 points per game with King in the side, compared to 1.5 when he’s been missing. While Tottenham have grown as a club over the past few years, stats like that make you wonder what they could have achieved had Ledley not had his chronic knee problem.
Steven Caulker is right at the start of his Premier League career, and couldn’t have started much more impressively. He was linked with a move to Liverpool FC before signing a new contract, testament to how highly new Reds boss Brendan Rodgers rates him, having worked with him on a daily basis at Swansea last season. He’s been tipped to shine for Spurs and for England for many years to come. While he doesn’t yet have the experience and knowledge only games can give you, he already looks like he has a very intelligent footballing brain, and has drawn many a comparison with King.
With King hanging up his boots, he leaves a huge gap to fill in Tottenham’s defence, as well as in the hearts of the fans. Could Caulker step up and be the next Ledley King? The heir to the King’s throne?