Back in May this year it was reported that the Tottenham Hotspur manager, Harry Redknapp, had been interested in Luis Suarez before Liverpool signed him but had been told by the club's scouts that the Uruguayan forward "wasn't up to it" and that he "couldn't cope in the Premier League." Cue great mirth at Redknapp's expense, despite the fact that what he actually said was: "We kept looking at Suarez but people thought he couldn't play up as a striker; they said he's like Rafa [van der Vaart] and you can't have him and Rafa or you'd have two players who want to drop deep, so that was the problem."
Speaking more recently, ahead of Tottenham's meeting with Liverpool in September, Redknapp reflected that Suarez was "a player we probably should have took," though he raised the problem of the asking price (in excess of £30 million/$47M at the time). "We thought he played a bit like van der Vaart ... we were looking for a target man," he explained, slightly ruefully.
Suarez is without question one of the most exciting players to come to the Premier League in quite some time and -- especially for those supporters who do not follow the Dutch Eredivisie, where Suarez had been averaging more than a goal a game for Ajax -- his arrival six months after the World Cup was a huge adrenaline hit. He came with reputations good and bad (he had not played for more than two months after being banned for biting PSV's Otman Bakkal on the shoulder, and you might have heard a word or two about his goal line clearance against Ghana in the quarterfinal of the World Cup) and continues to divide opinion, but it would take considerable effort not to enjoy watching him run with the ball at his feet. Seeing Suarez picking up possession is like watching a puppy spot his first rabbit in the woods.
And yet, Redknapp's regret seems misplaced. The two are not precisely comparable players (Van der Vaart did play as a lone striker for Spurs last Christmas, mind you, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa) but to have both would be to waste the talents of one or the other too much of the time, and neither gladly takes a seat on the bench. If the Tottenham boss is to have only one of the duo (and having both in the existing Spurs squad would be a bit like signing two world-class goalkeepers) then Van der Vaart, bought five months earlier for £8 million ($12M), is no duff option: looking at the stats for the calendar year 2011, the Dutchman has hit the target with almost two-thirds of his 66 shots at goal, a rate only forwards with significantly fewer shots, such as Bolton's Ivan Klasnic (who has actually scored eight goals from just 21 attempts), can better. This season Van der Vaart is hitting the target 78 percent of the time, and has six goals in 10 appearances.
Suarez, who has four goals in 12 appearances, takes a more scattergun approach, shooting more often than any Premier League forward except Arsenal's Robin van Persie, but missing the target more than 50 percent of the time since arriving in England (a rate that -- superficially, these are after all just numbers -- brackets him with patchy strikers such as Stoke City's Kenwyne Jones or even his predecessor at Anfield, Fernando Torres, who it is almost difficult to believe has scored only one goal fewer than Suarez in 2011). His driving, head-down runs quicken the pulse but his accuracy can suffer as a result; no forward, not even Wigan's unreliable Hugo Rodallega, has put so many shots high, wide and handsome as Suarez this season.
Now, before you dip your pitchfork to the flame, the point is not that Suarez is terrible and Van der Vaart is brilliant; let's not be so elementary about it as that. If the stats spoke for themselves we could just get every player to run a beep test and hit a few balls around in front of a camera each summer, stick the records in to a computer and have the table printed out in an afternoon. The comparison presented itself in Redknapp's conversations on the topic: should the Tottenham manager be haunted by the decision to drop his interest in Suarez on account of Van der Vaart's presence? And the answer, or at least the workings toward a contingent answer, revolves around systems.
Suarez is a great watch, a superb footballer -- all whirring legs, 360-degree turns and relentless pep -- capable of planting horribly dark fears in defenders' hearts; the sight of him panicking anyone from Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand to Norwich's Leon Barnett is enough to make even opposing supporters giddy. But, switching between a lone role, a big-man/small-man matchup with Andy Carroll, and a more recent pairing with Craig Bellamy, he is not yet one of the Premier League's
Suarez is a not a player often to "have a quiet game," no matter who he plays alongside, but it probably wasn't coincidence that Liverpool looked most dangerous during the first half against Chelsea last weekend: Suarez started up front alongside Bellamy with Maxi Rodriguez, making his first league start of the season, supporting from the left. Bellamy is another scurrier, similar enough to keep pace with Suarez and anticipate his next move (see the zinging one-touch build up to Liverpool's opener) but different enough, perhaps, to make an impact on productivity -- instead of shooting from a pretty decent position, Bellamy laid the ball off for Rodriguez to turn home from an excellent position; in his previous 11 league appearances, Suarez was more than twice as likely to shoot from inside the box (37 times) than to try to play a teammate in (17 times). His success rate hasn't been that high for either (his erratic finishing combining with several fine saves -- think John Ruddy, for Norwich, when Suarez also played with Bellamy), but given that his teammates can sometimes seem to lean on his creativity and urgency, rather than feed off of it, that's not entirely surprising. In a more fluid lineup such as that against Chelsea, that seems liable to change.
At Tottenham, Van der Vaart has enjoyed a relatively steady partnership with a target striker; until recently it was Crouch, then Emmanuel Adebayor. Only once this season, against Arsenal at the start of October, has he had to play from a right-midfield role. Even then, he scored and created two chances, but the point remains that most of the time he has played in his preferred position with his preferred strike partner -- and as part, since the end of August, of an increasingly strong front six. In those circumstances it is not surprising that he is in something like the form he showed at Ajax and Hamburg; his passing percentages in the final third are usually higher than Suarez's (averaging about 79 percent) and he creates, on average, two chances for teammates in every game. Even at his most profligate this season (against Queens Park Rangers at White Hart Lane would be my pick) he was involved in all three goals.
The fundamental business of signing players is to add people capable of raising a team to be more than the sum of its parts, and Redknapp already had Van der Vaart -- who plays so instinctively with the likes of Gareth Bale and, in particular, Luka Modric -- doing that. His typically unhurried demeanor does not necessarily provide the endorphin rush of one of Suarez's scampering runs, and at 28 he'll need replacing sooner, but Van der Vaart was and is a pretty snug fit for Spurs' needs as things stand; in his current form that conversation with his scouts about Suarez shouldn't be giving Redknapp too many sleepless nights.