Intrepid Rodrigo Bentancur keeps Tottenham under pressure | Tottenham Hotspur

ROdrigo Bentancur was four years old when his mother died. That’s why he wears shirt number 30, commemorating the date of his birthday. At 13, he left his small town in Uruguay to live at the Boca Juniors academy in Buenos Aires. At 19, he was given the chance to move to Europe, a decision that terrified him. “When they mentioned the possibility of coming to Juventus, I panicked,” he later recalled. “I was very happy, but also very scared.”

The point of dredging all of this up now is that when you’ve overcome challenges of this magnitude, perhaps you become more relaxed about being outnumbered three-to-two in midfield. Life taught Bentancur to grow fast, that the only true defense against adversity is fearlessness. That may well explain his unusual maturity on the pitch, the tenacity that has made him one of the Premier League’s most impressive midfielders and – with my apologies to Harry Kane – probably Tottenham’s best player this season.

For most of his nine months in English football, Bentancur was able to do his job under the radar. He signed the same day as the more obviously exciting Dejan Kulusevski, shares an international dressing room with genuine stars such as Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani and Federico Valverde, contributes few goals and assists, and doesn’t have the kind of game that can easily be chopped up and put on an awful Eurodance soundtrack on YouTube.

Even now, the eye is more often drawn to his grizzled midfield partner Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, a player who tears up the pitch with the sweaty frenzy of a man chased by wild dogs while wearing a bacon shorts.

And so for those not looking too closely, it was possible to forget exactly what Bentancur did there, especially in a Tottenham midfield that so often looks stressed and overworked, hammered to thinness molecular by Antonio Conte’s rope counter-attack game. . But to see Bentancur as an ungrateful victim of Conte-ball is to completely misinterpret the question. On the contrary: it is he who makes it work.

Tottenham’s Rodrigo Bentancur watches the ball against Marseille Photograph: Daniel Cole/AP

A measure of his importance is that Tottenham concede a goal every 96 minutes when he is on the pitch and a goal every 56 minutes when he is not.

Even by his standards, the past week has been particularly good for the 25-year-old. There was a sensational Champions League performance in Marseille on Tuesday: a hostile crowd, a defensive siege, it’s all on the line. Rarely has it been an objective about as marked as it is possible to conceive: to receive the ball in a crowded area, assaulted by a swarm of opposition. shirts, and yet still finding the grace to choose his place and pass the ball through a forest of bodies. Now he is preparing to face Liverpool on Sunday.

His composure under pressure – an ability to tackle ruthlessly, play quick passes with both feet, run relentlessly through the most congested part of the pitch – is what sets him apart. His main weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the press. In the Champions League group stage, he was among the top five players for distance covered, among those with a minimum of 500 minutes. His top speed was greater than either Kulusevski or Richarlison. This week Ryan Sessegnon revealed that Bentancur has the lowest body fat percentage of any Tottenham player.

So why were Juventus willing to let him go for just £15million in January? It was partly a decision motivated by short-term opportunism: laden with debt, they were keen to free up funds to sign Dusan Vlahovic from Fiorentina. But there was also a feeling in Turin that he had begun to stagnate under Massimiliano Allegri, that mistakes were starting to creep into his game. And yet Bentancur’s progress since suggests his own inconsistency was part of a dysfunction. much wider at the club, a desire for the kind of deep lie. movie directorstyle midfielder that Juventus lacked since the departure of Miralem Pjanic in 2020.

Bentancur isn’t exactly that kind of player, but he’s not just a simple destroyer either. In fact, you wonder if Conte sees something of himself in Bentancur: a fearless, energetic, high-mileage midfielder with good passing range and the combative streak he so admires.

A more recent parallel could be Mousa Dembélé, one of the most underrated players in Mauricio Pochettino’s spellbinding side. This ability to turn defense into attack with maximum speed and minimum risk has perhaps been the most obvious shortcoming of Tottenham’s more recent teams, and an area in which previous candidates Giovani Lo Celso, Tanguy Ndombele and Harry Winks were found to be insufficient to varying degrees.

It’s been a curious season for Tottenham, who sit in third place but have given the impression of a side playing at the edge of their limits: well-trained and mentally sound but lacking the depth and consistency of their immediate rivals. below. And in a way it’s Bentancur, more than Kane or Højbjerg, who holds this frenetic and fragile side together. The margins are paper thin. There are small fires everywhere you look. A horde of adversaries clicking on their heels and a wave of apprehension in the air. And that’s how he likes it best.


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