Spurs are finally in the position to have top players on the bench – including Bentancur
When Rodrigo Bentancur scored and starred in Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-2 draw at Manchester United last month, it felt as though he was back to his best.
Less than a year after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), here he was bossing the game at Old Trafford as if he’d never been away.
The four games since have been a bit of a reality check. Bentancur hasn’t quite hit those levels and again on Saturday against Brighton & Hove Albion was caught in possession a few times in his own third. One of these led to a Brighton penalty and another ended with Kaoru Mitoma almost doubling the visitors’ lead. In Spurs’ previous home game, the 3-2 win against Brentford, Bentancur was taken off at half-time.
The first thing to say is that this is all entirely understandable and it’s not even as if Bentancur has played badly — for any No 6 playing for Ange Postecoglou, losing the ball in dangerous positions from time to time is an occupational hazard. Above all, recovering fully from an ACL is a long and complicated process and some experts think it’s not until the following season after returning that players get fully back up to speed. These things take time.
While we tend to think that one or two good performances mean a player is fully over a serious injury, the reality is that while the overall trend when we zoom out is hopefully moving upwards, on a micro level there are going to be some ups and downs.
Bentancur has also had other injuries to contend with before and after the ACL rupture. There was an adductor injury that meant he didn’t play between December 2, 2022, and January 19, 2023, and then in just his fourth Spurs appearance since coming back from the ACL (and first start), he tore a ligament in his ankle and was out for more than a month, returning on December 31.
Bentancur came back a lot sooner than was expected from that ankle injury and he was constantly ahead of schedule during his eight-month recovery from the ACL. He has also played more in the past few months than probably would have been ideal, but Postecoglou’s hand has been forced by the unavailability at various points of other midfielders — Pape Matar Sarr, Yves Bissouma, James Maddison and Giovani Lo Celso among them.
So it would make sense if he needed a little rest. We’ve seen in Spurs’ last few games how much Brennan Johnson has benefited from playing fewer minutes — another player who had to compensate for so many players being unavailable.
What’s significant about the Bentancur situation is not that a player recovering from serious injury might be feeling his way back to full fitness, but the fact Spurs are now in a position where they can give a star player a rest if they need it.
Tottenham have for so long been the kind of team where their best players have to play every game. They have not been in the fortunate position of some of their rivals where they can rotate key players.
But with their unavailability crisis now easing, Spurs do have that luxury. Should Postecoglou feel that Bentancur would benefit from coming off the bench rather than starting Saturday’s game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, for instance, he can replace him with Bissouma – a midfielder who was one of the Premier League’s best for the early part of the season, just as he’d been for periods with Brighton.
This is the kind of situation Spurs have been chasing for years, that ability to rotate key players and not suffer a big drop-off in quality. The fact Spurs played just five Premier League matches without both Harry Kane and Son Heung-min between the latter’s debut in September 2015 and his recent stint at the Asian Cup nine years later spoke to their durability, but also to the fact that no Tottenham manager could ever give either of them a rest.
The hope is that Tottenham can get to the point where having big-name players on the bench is not an issue, but rather what’s expected. This was something Jose Mourinho commented on in June 2020 when he was the Spurs head coach. “Look, that is the question that normally you do to me but you don’t do to Frank Lampard, Jurgen Klopp, Pep (Guardiola), all the coaches of the big clubs with big players,” Mourinho said when asked what new signing Steven Bergwijn had to do to start more games. “With Pep, he plays this guy and plays Bernardo Silva on the bench, you never ask about Bernardo Silva. It looks like I am the only guy that has to play 15 players from the start or I am the only guy that doesn’t have the right to have good players on the bench.”
Four years on, Postecoglou and Spurs’ squad building has left them with the right to have good players on the bench. Even ones, if and when it’s deemed appropriate, as good as Bentancur.
(Top photo: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)