One of the immediate aspects of Tottenham’s managerial transition from Andre Villas-Boas to Tim Sherwood has been the new coach’s willingness to turn to Emmanuel Adebayor, frozen out under the Portuguese, and to inject youthful talent into his squad. It was Nabil Bentaleb who made a surprise debut as a substitute in the win at Southampton and he was also introduced in the second half of the Boxing Day draw with West Bromwich Albion. For the latter, he was joined on the bench by 21 year old former trainee Ryan Fredericks and fellow youth team graduate Milos Veljkovic, the 17 year old defender who moved to north London from Basle in 2011.
Formerly the coach of the club’s under-21 side until he signed the 18 month contract to take full-time charge of the first team, Sherwood has the benefit of experiencing his young talent first hand and it is his faith in Bentaleb that suggests he will not be averse to turning to the group of players he has spent the last couple of years overseeing. It represents to Spurs a change in direction from the £110 million summer free-spending under Villas-Boas to a more home-grown approach, and Bentaleb’s impressive 40 minute cameo at St Mary’s compounded with Sherwood’s stubborn willingness to take control of the squad on a long-term basis indicates he, as well as the other bright prospects in Spurs’ Enfield academy, will be seen a lot more.
An 18 year old midfielder of Algerian descent, Bentaleb began his youth career at Lille before he was released at the age of 15. The next few years in his development became nomadic as he moved to Belgian club Mouscron before moving back to France with Dunkerque. He then failed a trial with Birmingham before impressing Spurs scouts enough to be signed up to their youth side last year.
His progression was rapid, elevated from the club’s under-19 to the under-21s for the second half of last season where he went on to score 4 goals in 14 matches, also making 3 assists. Villas-Boas included him on the bench for the Capital One Cup match with Hull City and considered bringing him into the squad for Europa League fixtures,
‘Nabil, definitely, is training so well that he is always in contention to break in to the team” said the Portuguese manager last year.
Villas-Boas high regard of the midfielder caused him to offer a new 4 year deal to Bentaleb in October, though again he continued to miss out on the Portuguese’s match-day plans before being called upon by Sherwood at Southampton. The Algerian didn’t even have a Wikipedia page before the trip down south and his Twitter followship grew by more than 8,000 by the following morning, another indication of his rocketing career and perhaps even more telling of the faith Sherwood carried in his charge.
“It’s about the heat of the battle and knowing who you can trust, and the kid’s ready to play,”Sherwood said of Bentaleb’s professional debut on the south coast,“I knew what I was going to get. I knew he wouldn’t be fazed. He was cool. He trains like every day is the last day in the world, listens and has a fantastic attitude. I know I can trust that kid.”
Bentaleb is a central midfielder by trade, though he can play in the hole behind the striker or on the left wing. It is this versatility that saw him drift between under-19 and under-21 age groups as when Tom Carroll was absent for the older group, he was asked to step up to fill the attacking midfielder role. He can be used as a deeper lying holding midfielder, though at 5ft 8 and weighing just 160 lbs, it can be argued he lacks the physique to play there at the higher levels.
It was significant that Bentaleb was preferred by Sherwood ahead of the £9 million signing Ettiene Capoue against Southampton, marking a shift from the usually over-cautious era of Villas-Boas to one that advocates more abandon. He was introduced at 1-1 and into his regular role of an advanced play-maker. Left footed and a good dribbler, Bentaleb doesn’t possess a lot of pace but places an emphasis on close control and gifted technical ability as he pulls the strings in the middle of the field. His first duty when picking up the ball is to lift his head up and move it forwards with flair and guile.
Playing in a disciplined deeper role for a game against Sporting Lisbon, French Football Weekly compared him to Adel Taarabt as he dribbled himself out of tight spots with composed ease. However that can be argued as slightly harsh considering Bentaleb’s game, unlike Taarabt’s selfishly aimless running, is about supplying others and linking the play with nimble footwork and a large range of vision.
His likeliness to Taarabt possibly comes from an instance in the game where he showed unwillingness to track back, though as he matures and has further exposure to top flight football, he will surely begin to understand the importance of the more diligent side of the game. However his natural quality is in possession and it was his ability to manage the ball effectively that contributed hugely to Spurs’ win at Southampton, playing his natural game of moving possession between Christian Eriksen and Gylfi Sigurdsson. It was Bentaleb’s drive forwards to release Eriksen that forced their second goal via an own goal from Jos Hooiveld. He was composed and assured as he slotted in effortlessly to the midfield.
Bentaleb’s next move will be to possibly move out on loan in order to further aid his development, though it can not be argued that the most helpful route would be to enjoy more first team football under Sherwood at Spurs. With the new permanent coach fully aware of his talents and having shown previously he is willing to trust him at the highest level despite his startling lack of experience, it could be something not entirely, given his alarming rate of progression so far, beyond Bentaleb.
In Kenneth McEvoy, Shaquile Coulthirst and Harry Kane, as well as those buoyed to the fringes of the squad under Sherwood, Tottenham’s academy is proving to be largely fruitful. In Bentaleb, the 18 year old France under-19 international who can still opt to play for Algeria, they could have found a diamond in an otherwise troubled season.