by Sam-Antrobus ~ footballfancast.com
When someone begins describing their mate to you and they utter the immortal line, ‘they’re a bit of a character,’ one usually expects the aforementioned friend to be something of a lemon, to put it kindly. And when it comes to describing Benoit Assou-Ekotto, it’s difficult not to reference his outspoken persona. But far from being an obnoxious, ill-informed footballing millionaire, the man affectionately known as ‘Disco Benny’ at White Hart Lane, is an absolute breath of fresh air.
But for all his improvement on the pitch, the Cameroon international still makes up one quarter of a Spurs back four, which consistently seems to be leaking cheap goals. Harry Redknapp always maintained a level of patience and tolerance towards Assou-Ekotto’s often erratic style of play.
With a new manager, comes new ideas and not every player in the current Spurs starting XI may feature in their plans. Could Assou-Ekotto’s unique style render him most likely to fall victim to change at White Hart Lane?
It’s quite amazing to think that the French-born full-back has now been in N17 for six years now. A Damien Comolli signing, it’s fair to say that Assou-Ekotto’s arrival from Lens in a £3.5million deal was hardly greeted with excessive amount of fanfare. The signings of Dimitar Berbatov and, as absurd as it now sounds, Didier Zokora, occupied the majority of supporters pre season talk as the Cameroonian slipped into Spurs quietly under the radar.
And as misfortune had it, he nearly fell off the radar completely during his first season. After a relatively tepid start to his White Hart Lane career, Assou-Ekotto managed to oust Lee Young-Pyo over to right-back, before a poor run of form saw him loose his left sided role to the Korean. Then in the February of 2007, a serious knee injury nearly sent not just his Spurs career, but also his entire footballing future, into oblivion. The rest of his debut season was written off, and the 07-08 campaign amounted to just one league appearance. If you told anyone at that point that he’d go on to make 163 outings in a Spurs shirt, you would have got laughed back down the High Road.
Very rarely though, has the cliché of coming back stronger than ever, been put into practice quite so emphatically as Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s return to the Tottenham first team. After weathering the chaos of Juande Ramos’ final moments in his comeback season, the ex-Lens man solidified himself under Harry Redknapp. Since his memorable strike against Liverpool on the opening day of the 09-10 season, there has been no looking back and Assou-Ekotto has made the left-back position his own, featuring prominently in the team that attained Champions League football, then playing in the tournament himself.
His frank yet truthful demeanor has really won over the Spurs faithful, too. In a footballing landscape domineered by sleazy agents and grotesque amounts of money, Assou-Ekotto has been honest and forthcoming about his perception of football as a career. But his penchant for using the Underground, driving a Smart Car and his column in the Evening Standard has ensured he retains a special place in supporters hearts. He has made a genuine effort to immerse himself in the community and his presence in North London after the devastation of the riots, was an outstanding touch. In the nicest possible way, Assou-Ekotto is the antithesis of the modern day footballer.
But his unique style is as clear to see on the football pitch as off it. To say he is calm in possession is an understatement; where as most full-backs choose to shunt the ball out of play under pressure, Spurs’ left-back prefers to feint his way out of trouble or perform a drag back on the byline. He has publically stated his belief in keeping possession and he has combined his silky play on the ball with a maturing sense of positional awareness off of it.
Assou-Ekotto’s style is something of a double-edged sword, however. Over the course of last season, he was generally one of Tottenham’s most consistent performers, but he always felt likely to make a real clanger from time to time. His performance in the 5-2 defeat at the Emirates in February, was one of several nightmare showings from Spurs players, but it was more what was going on inside the Cameroonian’s head, than what was going on with his feet. A lack of awareness and a tendency to switch off were one thing, but it was just his general level of concentration that seemed to be his biggest issue. It isn’t just one game that we’re picking on here; it was a motif of an issue that has plagued him throughout his Spurs career.
Defensively, he is nowhere near as bad as what some of the more ill informed in the media like to make out. Those that watch him week in, week out are well aware of how much he brings to the team, and Alan Hansen’s continuous panning of Assou-Ekotto on an eight minute highlights package, is grossly unfair. But those that watch him each week aren’t blind to his faults. And as much as he has improved, it feels hard to envisage that the concentration issues are any more likely to dissipate next season.
As a new manager looks set to enter the helm at White Hart Lane, the footballing philosophies that he values the highest could determine Assou-Ekotto’s future. This isn’t a piece looking to slam a real fan favourite in North London- in fact, the author would sorely miss the je ne sais quois that Benoit Assou-Ekotto brings to this Spurs team. But it is more an acknowledgement of the patience that Harry Redknapp bestowed upon the left back. More than anything else, who was likely to displace him?
Yet if the new man is looking to shore up the Tottenham defence, than pragmatism could well eradicate flamboyance at White Hart Lane. If such an approach prevails, than Assou-Ekotto could be spending his summer looking over his shoulder at an inferior footballer, but a superior defender.