Rodrigo Bentancur came to Tottenham with little, if any, fanfare from those who follow the club. A player who spent the majority of his career at Juventus playing under the radar - and the timing of the move, at the end of the window - made people think that Fabio Paratici was using his Old Lady ties to get a player - any player - through the door.
Fast forward two months and Bentancur, alongside his fellow ex-Juventini Dejan Kulusevski, have both earned their spots in Tottenham’s starting XI. The Uruguayan in particular has added a new dimension of stability in Spurs’ midfield.
Here’s three things that I’ve noticed about his play so far.
He Adds Another Layer of Defensive Stability in Midfield
When Bentancur first came in to Spurs, I wrote an article noting that his defensive prowess was probably his biggest strength. Although I’m not sure I’d still stand by that - he’s more well-rounded than I first thought - he’s still very defensively sound, and as a result its clear to see that Conte prefers Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Bentancur as a midfield duo.
Harry Winks is perhaps a bit more consistent with his forward passing, but in general his play can be quite streaky. Defensively he’s just not as involved as Bentancur. With the Uruguayan, not only does Hojbjerg have less of a defensive burden on his shoulders but Tottenham’s entire defensive system profits off of it.
Although Winks and Bentancur get involved in a similar amount of defensive duels / 90 (7.24/8.53), Bentancur has a success rate of 65.08% - 9 points higher than Winks. Additionally, Bentancur average 7.71 recoveries while Winks averages 4.91.
In the clip above we see two traits that contribute to his defensive efficacy - he understands Tottenham’s pressing triggers well and he is deceptively quick. After watching him play it’s always a bit surprising to see his short bursts of acceleration, especially given his tall frame.
He Has More Creativity Than Most Think
In my previous Bentancur analysis I also pointed out that he wouldn’t be Tottenham’s creative outlet. He’s certainly no Eriksen but he can consistently make a great pass that splits the defense and creates an opportunity for Tottenham’s attackers. Hojbjerg doesn’t really have that ability, and Kane cannot be expected to pull the strings 100% of the time, it’s important for Spurs to have other players in the squad who can help create attacking motions. Both Bentancur (and Kulusevski to perhaps a larger extent) have done this.
What’s most interesting to see is that in the above clip he shows an immense amount of composure. The space around him gets smaller but he still backs himself to keep the ball and wait for an attacking option to show itself.
Below, we see his range of passing is up there with the best too.
Bentancur won’t end the season with 10 or even 5 assists, but as a pivot he’s been great at always looking for, and sometimes executing, pass that cuts through the opposition.
His Composure - Sometimes Good, Sometimes Bad
Bentancur and Winks are similar in one way - they both hold on to the ball for a long time. Bentancur is perhaps better at quicker, accurate passes but he does tend to hold on to the ball. The difference being that Winks holds on to it because he does not know what to do with it, whereas Bentancur holds it to try to attract a challenge he can squirm past/wait for the proper run (as seen above). It’s hard to describe but watch some clips of Winks and you can tell by his body shape what I mean.
Main point here is that when Bentancur plays well, his ball retention can be a great boon for Spurs. Time and again we’ve seen Spurs panic in the penalty area, booting balls away only to just invite more pressure, but take a look at the composure Bentancur shows in the clip below.
This ability to turn the defensive phase into attacking phase is crucial for Conte’s system to work as he needs his forwards to isolate opposition defenders as much as possible.
But, once or twice a game, Bentancur gets dispossessed because he holds the ball for too long.
There’s something to be said for new players getting used to a new league. But I’m not sure that’s the reason this is happening - Bentancur is not being surprised that there’s players around him, he’s almost surprised at the lack of players, in other words the amount of space he has. Can only guess that this is something he’ll grow out of, but given how often this occurs and he’s still starting games, it shows how much trust Conte has in him.
All in all, Bentancur has been a great acquisition. Rival fans might laugh but I would argue he’s borderline transformative in how he fits into Conte’s system. I struggle to see Spurs anywhere near as successful in the last few weeks with a Hojbjerg/Winks double pivot.