Every Spurs supporter was stunned and saddened today when club legend Ledley King announced his retirement due to chronic knee injury. King had been the keystone to the Tottenham central defense for over a decade, leading not only with his play, but with his organization.
King's presence looms large over the club, and his play will not easily be replaced. King was a once in a generation talent out of the Tottenham Academy, and possessed a rare class at defender. There is no player ready for Tottenham who can take over King's role for the defense.
As much as losing King hurts, there are positives to be gained from his absence. King's inability to train in recent years has surely hurt the cohesion of the Tottenham team. Now, new manager Andre Villas-Boas will be able to train his first choice defensive pairings without King looming to swoop in and take one of those spots. And with the high line of AVB coming being introduced to the Spurs system, King would have been a bad fit regardless.
Leadership-wise, Michael Dawson seems the most likely candidate to take over for King. A veteran of Spurs for seven years now, Dawson has seemed to possess the hard worth ethic that took him from an out of favor player to an English international at his peak. Dawson has become one of the main candidates to wear the captain's armband in King's absences. However, as Dawson continues to recover from last season's ankle ligament rupture, his role at the club grows more uncertain.
In on field play, Younes Kaboul looks the most likely candidate to be the every-day standout that King was in the first half of the aughts. Kaboul, like King, has a great versatility to his game, a strong tackler with a willingness to attack. Kaboul posseses elite athleticism for a centerback. Earlier in his career it seemed Kaboul would never be able to harness it, but the Frenchmen's improvement last season makes it seem that he is well on the way of living up to his potential.
A lot of expectation rests on new arrival Jan Vertonghen to immediately become a rock of the Spurs defense. Captain at Ajax, Vertonghen has experience in leading a defense. But the physicality and athleticism of the Premiership will prove a much tougher challenge than the Eredivisie. Vertonghen arguably has more defensive skill than anyone on the Spurs roster. Vertonghen will be expected to step in day one and prove he was worth his price tag.
If there is any player on the Tottenham Hotspur roster who can come close to matching King's career trajectory, it is Steven Caulker. An academy product, Caulker has seen a rapid ascent after successful loans to Yeovil Town, Bristol City, and last season Swansea City. Built of a similar build as King, Caulker demonstrated great composure and skill with a football-playing Swansea. Only timing and opportunity are in Caulker's way now.
Caulker's selection to the Team GB team was a a great honor, but definitely not a boon for his club career. Caulker will miss AVB's first pre-season for the Olympics, setting him back in impressing the new gaffer. With established veterans like Kaboul, Vertonghen, and Dawson ahead of him, Caulker will have to prove himself the hard way. The Europa League looms as a competition where Caulker can prove himself early, trying to launch in a starting spot.
The remaining factor is William Gallas. The French veteran had some great games last year, and with King's departure Gallas becomes the de facto "Old Wily Veteran." However, this would be underselling the contribution Gallas can provide for the Spurs side. Gallas still has good performances in him, but his minutes must be managed to keep him fit for the entire year. Teams that stretch the center defenders won't be good fits for Gallas, but he can still defend well against route 1 football.
All in all, Tottenham Hotspur have five capable center backs on the roster (not bothering to include Sebastien Bassong, who is highly unlikely to stick with the team). The likely starting pair will be Vertonghen and Kaboul, but the three back-ups all have significant roles to play. Dawson is the man with club experience, Gallas the vital spot starter, and Caulker as a Leader of the New School. Hopefully King will stay around the club, providing coaching to this crop of defenders and future players. But in his absence, Tottenham is rolling with this party of five.