Roberto Soldado is a member of Tottenham Hotspur. The official nature of Monday's announcement still confounds me. #WeNeedaStriker has been a problem (and meme onto itself) for Tottenham Hotspur since the genesis of this site. Since the departure of Dimitar Berbatov it has been a revolving door of strikers for Tottenham Hotspur. Each had their own unique qualities and failings, but none were the all-encompassing answer at the forward position. It became the catch-all excuse for Spurs supporters-that having "the" striker would make the team a permanent Champions League fixture. Now Spurs have one of Europe's strikers leading the line.
I was inspired for this article by Michael Cox's brilliant piece on the "vertical" style of football that Andre Villas-Boas wants to play, which Soldado is well suited to lead. For those who didn't read, it discusses AVB's proclivity for quick passing up the pitch, playing balls towards the opponent's end while trending away from a possession or aerial crossing game. Soldado himself admits his love of the first touch goal, as perfectly placed passes give him the chance to launch quick-strike goals. The key then becomes placing through balls into the attacking players, either directly to Soldado or to the wide attackers (Bale, Chadli, and Lennon namely) who can either cut in or play balls into the box for Soldado.
It seems to reason that two of Sandro, Mousa Dembele and Paulinho will feature in midfield for the vast majority of Spurs matches this year. The sheer quality of those three will be hard to keep off the team sheet. However, Sandro is a true defensive midfielder that is more comfortable passing in short distances, Mousa Dembele excels in dribbling, and Paulinho is more of a disciplined tactician rather than a long ball maestro. With Tom Huddlestone likely to exit Spurs, there seems to be no candidate for a deep-lying playmaker.
In days of yore, the answer would be the classic number 10. The advanced playmaker, attacking and playing devastating balls that see him rack up assists like they are going out of style. However, the days of the old number 10 are numbered. The Juan Roman Riquelme's of the world are a dying breed. The next generation of central attackers was seen in this year's Champions League final, as Marco Reus and Thomas Müller starred from the position, highlighting their pace, attacking instinct and goalscoring ability. However, while both players may not be the pass-first players of South American lore, they do bring their teammates into play with sharp attacks. If this is the way football is going, with number tens drawing the attention that can boost the goal quantities of strikers of Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gomez's quality, do Spurs have the man who can do so for Soldado?
The answer comes down to two young attackers: Gylfi Sigurdsson and Lewis Holtby. Clint Dempsey's departure clearly marks the beginning of a battle for the rights to the Spurs "10" role. Whether as the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 system or the most forward of a three man midfield, this player will be expected to drive play forward and deliver those "vertical" balls that Roberto Soldado profits so well on.
Each has his relative strengths. Gylfi is the bigger, stronger player and a bigger goal scoring threat. In attack he draws far more attention from the defense as a multi-threat player. Holtby is more comfortable playing from deep with stronger passing instincts. Through balls are something he excels in, playing one per 90 minutes last season, far more than any Spurs regular. He proved this skill in the Bundesliga as well:
Lewis Holtby: Only Diego (12) and Max Kruse (9) have played more accurate through balls in the Bundesliga this season than Holtby (8)— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) January 28, 2013
Each are young and dynamic, but will contribute different things to the team. With Gareth Bale's situation so unsettled, it is difficult to determine long term who will be the better fit. However, the role the Spurs "10" needs to fill in the system is clear.
Soldado is the type of striker that pushes high up the pitch rather than dropping deep for possession. If teams try to catch him offside, it will put that much more pressure on the midfielders to play the through ball that can find the forwards free. However, with Spurs' pace on the wings it seems wise to reason that Soldado will make sideline runs, dragging center backs out of place to open up space for decisive runs from the wide forwards towards goal. Therefore, it becomes clear that the Spurs 10's will need to be a better reader of the game then ever. After having two relatively static strikers in Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe last year, Spurs will have a dynamic striker leading the line.
The common decision will come in reading the centerbacks, as Sigurdsson and Holtby run their version of the read-option constantly through the game. Deep play by the centerbacks will require the 10 to make attacking dribbles, forcing the defense to concede space or step up and close down. Attempts to trap Soldado will require perfectly-timed vertical balls that can release the Spaniard into space. And Soldado's sideline runs will require a reading of the wide forwards, giving them a chance to attack while the attacking midfielder follows to offer supporting late runs. With all the attention Soldado and the wide forwards will demand, it seems well to reason that the most forward attacking midfielder will have the opportunity to profit.
Before the season it is hard to tell whether the German or Icelander will earn the role. Gylfi Sigurdsson seems to have the edge in his play for club and country over the last year, but strong showings for Holtby with Schalke and the German U-21s promise incredible potential. If Holtby can prove an elite ability to play his teammates into space, then Sigurdsson will see his role reduced. So let the battle of the vertical ball begin. And let the best "10" win.