We don't have any pictures of Tom Huddlestone in our editor that have been taken since last August, which was the last time that Huddlestone played in a competitive game. An ankle injury and multiple surgeries robbed him of a season. He went 10 months without playing in a real 11-on-11, 90-minute professional football match. The gap between competitive fixtures for him will be nearly 12 months if he has no further setbacks.
This is a very long time to not do anything. Try not driving a car for a year, or riding a bike, or performing some kind of culinary skill, or playing Call of Duty, then picking it up again. I guarantee you that it's going to feel weird, and that you're not going to do it like you used to when you did it on a daily basis. These are normal, everyday things that people do in situations that are not hyper-competitive, and they're hard enough to do after a year's layoff.
I've gone a year without driving a car, then driven in a big city with lots of traffic and confusing signs immediately when I started again. I didn't get into an accident and I didn't inadvertently break any traffic laws, but I felt like an idiot, and I sure as hell couldn't have parallel parked in a tiny space. In doing this, I got a small taste of what Huddlestone is going through right now, but what he's doing is a million times harder and more awkward.
Huddlestone finally started a match against New York Red Bulls on Tuesday night and looked very much off his game. I'm not about to criticize him for it either, because I understand. I expected Huddlestone to struggle early in preseason, and I expect him to struggle early in the Premier League season as well. It's going to take him a while to come back, if he comes back at all.
Because the truth is, we have no idea what Huddlestone is going to look like come this spring. Last year, at the highest level of football, there were a couple of players with very similar situations whose seasons went very differently.
Sebastian Kehl, captain of Borussia Dortmund, missed nearly all of his side's impressive title-winning campaign in 2010-11. He returned to the starting XI instantly last season, surprisingly displacing Ilkay Gündogan early in the year. He struggled mightily, especially in the UEFA Champions League, where he was extremely poor. It was hard to understand exactly why Jurgen Klopp insisted on playing him when, at 31-years-old, it seemed he would never be the same.
It turns out that Klopp knew better than everyone else. Kehl slowly but surely improved, and by the end of last season, was BVB's strongest midfielder. Gündogan regained form and broke back into the starting XI, but he ended up replacing Sven Bender, not Kehl. Now, Klopp has three fit, top class central midfielders at his disposal, because he gave Kehl time to regain his form.
On the flip side, Aaron Ramsey still hasn't completely come back from the broken leg that caused his career to stall. He had flashes of brilliance last season, but struggled for the most part for Arsenal last season, and was less consistent with his touch and short passing than he was as an 18-year-old prior to his injury. It's very possible that he just needed much more time to get back to his old form than Kehl, but some fear that he will never be the same.
With the full disclosure that I am not a doctor, and even if I was, I have not examined Huddlestone, I feel like we're in for something in between the recoveries of Kehl and Ramsey, mostly because Huddlestone lies right inbetween them in age and experience. I expect him to contribute to Tottenham and look like a quality Premier League central midfield player in the latter part of the season, but I am not expecting much from him in the early fall. Huddlestone will almost certainly struggle in his first half dozen or so games, if not his first 10-12.
It's important for everyone not to overreact to this. Huddlestone will probably look downright poor the first time he plays in a Premier League match, and that's okay. It's going to take him a while to come all the way back, but I'm confident that it's going to come eventually. Even if Huddlestone isn't at his best by the time the holiday fixture congestion rolls around, it won't be time to write him off. A year is a long time away from professional football, and it's going to take a lot of game time for him to return to his old self.
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