Can Rafael van der Vaart and Gylfi Sigurdsson exist in the same midfield?

Rafael van der Vaart looked as if he was on his way out of the door marked ‘exit’ when Spurs signed Gylfi Sigurdsson.

However, Andre Vilas-Boas appears to want to keep the Dutchman around despite the fact that we have signed the Icelander who also likes to operate in the hole.

We’ve seen the two of them on the pitch at the same time during pre-season, as Andre Villas-Boas searches for his best side without the strikers to play his preferred 4-3-3.

If Luka Modric does indeed depart for Real Madrid, then AVB will be on the search for a midfield playmaker before the transfer window shuts. With time running out, does he already have a solution to a Modric sized hole in the midfield with Sigurdsson and van der Vaart?

Gylfi Sigurdsson at just 22 is seven years younger than Rafael van der Vaart and is the future of the team, but could the two exist in the same side this season?

Rafael van der Vaart and Gylfi Sigurdsson performance

Both Rafael van der Vaart and Gylfi Sigurdsson had excellent seasons last year.

The Dutchman looked happiest when playing in the hole behind a single striker, rather than having to do any defensive work when he was fielded out wide. The Icelander looked to be a perfect fit operating in the hole behind a single striker for Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea.

With both operating in similar positions, there are some marked differences in their Premier League numbers.

Mins on pitch23811560
Mins per pass received1.6 mins2.4 mins
Mins per pass played1.6 mins2.4 mins
Pass Accuracy88%85%
Pass in Opposition half55%22%
Chance created31.7 mins31.2 mins
Mins per tackle won95 mins78 mins
Mins per interception85 mins60 mins

When looking at their numbers a couple of things jump out.

Firstly Rafael van der Vaart sees much more of the ball at Spurs than Gylfi Sigurdsson did in Swansea’s possession based offence.

The Dutchman touched the ball every 1.6 minutes on pitch, compared to the Icelander’s 2.4 minutes. This may not seem like much, but over the course of a 90-minute match, this is an additional 19 touches of the ball for Rafael van der Vaart.

He also completes 55% of his passes in the opposition half of the field, compared to Sigurdsson’s 22%, indicating he operates higher up the pitch. We’ll look in to this more in a moment.

The second thing that is noticeable is not really a surprise given van der Vaart’s reluctance to track back. Gylfi Sigurdsson is much better at winning possession through making tackles and reading the play to intercept the ball.

Rafael van der Vaart and Gylfi Sigurdsson positioning

On the field, both liked to operate in the hole for their respective teams last season. But does this mean that they both operate in the same areas of the pitch, thus cancelling each other out?

We looked at how Sigurdsson played for Swansea in “What Gylfi Sigurdsson brings to Spurs” and saw how he likes to operate down the inside right channel. If you’ve not read that article, then check it out for some detailed insight in to his game.

If we look at some more Swansea matches from last season, which weren’t analysed in that article, we can also see how much he works this inside-right channel.

When Swansea beat Manchester City, Gylfi Sigurdsson was at work in this area as the Swans struck seven minutes from time to edge the blue half of Manchester 1-0.


Gylfi Sigurdsson operates in the central inside right channel.

Then against us, Gylfi Sigurdsson was at it again as he scored the only Swansea only goal in a 3-1 victory for Spurs.


Gylfi Sigurdsson plays down the central inside-right channel and scores a goal.

As for Rafael van der Vaart, when he was getting the start in the hole for Spurs, he really does work the whole of the pitch.

If we take a look at some of his performances using Stats Zone, we can see how much more active he is across the park and why he was receiving 19 more passes per game.

Against Bolton when Spurs won 4-1 at the Reebok, Rafael van der Vaart scored and created a goal, but was active across the entire pitch.

The Dutchman receives a lot of passes in central areas, but also drifts out to the right and also the left, where he receives a pass from Gareth Bale for his goal (yellow line).


Rafael van der Vaart works the entire width of the pitch against Bolton.

When Spurs travelled away to Aston Villa on the penultimate day of the season, we can also see how Rafael van der Vaart receives passes in three areas across the whole pitch.


Rafael van der Vaart receives passes in three distinct areas across the whole pitch.

With Gylfi Sigurdsson operating down the inside right channel and Rafael van der Vaart liking to work across the park, could AVB use them in the same team?

The answer is yes depending on the formation used.

How Rafael van der Vaart and Gylfi Sigurdsson could fit in to the same formation

As is well documented, Andre Villas-Boas prefers to utilise a 4-3-3 system that presses the opposition high up the pitch. He hasn’t been able to use it so far as he hasn’t had the required forwards to play it and so has been going 4-2-3-1, but his 4-3-3 works like this.

He likes to move the fullbacks up to help with both attacking and pressuring, but his three midfielders have three distinct roles.

Firstly, there is a defensive player who can drop back in and help the central defenders to avoid a 2v2 situation.

Secondly, there is a playmaker whose job it is to distribute the ball wide for crosses and through to a central number nine.

Thirdly, there is an attacking player who drives the right channel looking to create overload situations with the right-hand forward having moved in as a support striker.

The front three consist of a central number nine and two wider forwards who operate differently.

The central player is used to hold the ball up and bring others in to play, whilst also looking to get in to the box to score goals.

The left-sided forward works as a more of a natural winger to supply crosses and stretch the defence. Andre Villas-Boas used Juan Mata at Chelsea and Silvestre Varela at FC Porto to do this.

The right-sided forward is a support striker who comes inside to help the number nine. AVB used Hulk at Porto and Daniel Sturridge whilst at Chelsea.

For Spurs, Rafael van der Vaart, with his pass received every 1.6 minutes, 55% in the opposition half, 88% pass completion rate and movement across the pitch could occupy the playmaker role. Whilst Gylfi Sigurdsson, with his adept working of the central inside-right channel, looks a good fit for the attacking midfielder role.

The Spurs team could line-up like this with their current squad, but need to add a ceentral and support striker indicated by ‘?’.


How Spurs could play 4-3-3 with Rafael van der Vaart the playmaker and Gylfi Sigurdsson the attacking midfielder.

Right now though, Andre Villas-Boas doesn’t have the required strikers to play his 4-3-3 system and has been going 4-2-3-1.

If Luka Modric does depart for Real Madrid, then Villas-Boas could utilise Gylfi Sigurdsson deeper in the formation, as he is the better defensive player of the two.

Rafael van der Vaart could work across the pitch in his natural position in the hole, whilst Sigurdsson could operate in a deeper playmaking role alongside Scott Parker, Sandro or Jake Livermore.

Sigurdsson could still do his work in the central inside-right channel, albeit from deeper.

With the players Spurs have in place, the team would line-up like this.


How Rafael van der Vaart and Gylfi SIgurdsson could operate in a 4-2-3-1 system with the current Spurs playing squad.

Although not an ideal solution, with Gylfi Sigurdsson at the base of the midfield along with a more defensive player, he could offer an attacking thrust from deeper. For Swansea, only 22% of his passes made were in the opposition half, so he is able to operate from here.

His passing map for Swansea against Fulham last season shows how he can radiate passes out from a deeper position.


Gylfi Sigurdsson radiates passes from the inside right channel.

So, although Rafael van der Vaart and Gylfi Sigurdsson seem like two similar players, they could potentially exist in the same midfield.

Preferably it would be in Andre Villas-Boas’s 4-3-3 formation, which would allow both players to operate in their more natural areas.

However, with the current striker crisis, they would have to co-exist in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but both players would seem to be able to adapt to it.

Luka Modric may be departing for Real Madrid, if he does leave; maybe the players to replace him are already at the club.

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