By Martin Cloake
One of football’s great clichés is that a player’s record speaks for itself. For many fans, the example of Jermain Defoe undermines that assertion. He’s a great goalscorer whose goalscoring prowess is still questioned, the European goalscoring record holder whose goalscoring record is measured unfavourably against those he outscored, the club legend who, for many, sits uncomfortably alongside the club’s great goalscorers of the past.
Let’s establish something right from the start. I’ve enjoyed watching Defoe over the years and certainly don’t intend to knock him here. I’ve also loved the way my kids have taken to him at that all-important impressionable age as the kind of exciting goalscorer all Spurs fans love to see. At his best, he’s the sort of player who turns people on to the game. But there are also those doubts. Can he cut it against the very best? Did his ability to read the game ever match his undoubted technical ability and eye for goal? Why did he never seem to work out the offside trap? I took a look at the stats to see if they backed up what I thought, and what others’ opinions were.
As I write this, Defoe has just provided more cause for thought by netting his 143rd goal for the club, his 10th of this season, consolidating his position as the fifth highest goalscorer in the club’s history. But, as his critics were quick to point out, it was his first in the league since April 2013, and another against a team that were not top class. That’s been a consistent criticism of Defoe, that he’s a flat-track bully incapable of netting at the very top level. A look at the stats appears to back that up.
Of his 143 goals, just 13 have come against the sides generally accepted as having been top four teams during his spell with Spurs; Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City. The clubs he’s scored most goals against are Wigan, West Ham, Aston Villa, West Brom, Newcastle and Portsmouth. As always, those figures can be sliced and diced a little differently. Take out the extraordinary five-goal spree in the 9-1 demolition of Wigan and the team Defoe has scored most goals against is in fact Manchester City. City haven’t been quite the force they are now since Defoe joined Spurs in 2004, but he has scored against them regularly – right up to that last but one Premier league goal last April.
So Defoe can score against the top sides, and perhaps comparing goals scored against a few teams will always look bad when compared to goals scored against the many. Of course he scores more often against teams outside the top six, because we play against them more often. Shape the question differently again, though, and ask when Defoe has scored a really vital, season defining goal, and an answer becomes harder to find.
Similar questions are raised about his European goalscoring record – one critics say has been achieved by banging in goals against the likes of Lokomotiv Cheekygirl and Legia Trousers. So let’s take a look at the facts. Defoe’s 23 European goals for Spurs have come against; Seville, Dinamo Bucharest, Getafe, Anorthorsis Famagusta, Young Boys, Twente Enschede, Hearts, Shamrock Rovers, Maribor, Panathinaikos, Dynamo Tbilisi, Tromso, Anzhi Makhachkala and FC Sheriff. Not too many of the big names in the European game there, it’s true, and only three goals in the club’s single Champions League campaign. But, to use another of football’s great clichés, you can only play against the teams in front of you.
But who plays alongside you is also important, and in Defoe’s time at Spurs he’s never really formed a partnership with another striker that has clicked. His most successful season was in 2009/10, when his 24 goals came alongside regular striking partner Peter Crouch, another player who, in my opinion, many Spurs fans underrated. The service Defoe had from the wingers playing under Harry Redknapp’s attacking, expansive football was also a major factor – Defoe’s goals came most often from picking up balls into the box.
During Defoe’s first spell at the club, a few of us used to wonder if it was Defoe’s speed that saw him caught offside so much; linesmen seemed to raise their flags on the basis that Defoe couldn’t have got to the ball from an onside position. As the years have gone on, it’s become clearer that Defoe simply can’t work out how to stay onside with the regularity you would expect from a top class striker. This inability to read the game, plus a perceived inability to bring teammates into the game or offer much else except score, meant that many Spurs fans can’t quite see him as the goalscoring legend the figures say he is. I think these are valid criticisms, but I’m also reminded of walking out of White Hart Lane some years ago and hearing someone say: “That bloody Lineker, he did nothing today except score a hat-trick”.
Defoe’s been around longer than many players in this age when two seasons at a club is seen as long service. He also came back after he was inexplicably sold to Portsmouth in one of Daniel Levy’s many bouts of player trading overkill. During his time at the club, he rarely complained, he just got on with doing his job. Off the pitch, he was well respected for getting properly involved with community work through his youth foundation.
The enduring images of Defoe’s goalscoring will be him picking up a ball in the box and twisting to fire home, or one of a number of runs through onto a defence-splitting ball and waltzes around the keeper. My favourite Defoe goal came early on, in the pulsating 4-5 defeat at Home to Arsenal in Martin Jol’s first game in charge. Picking up the ball on the left hand side, Defoe span in and ran forward, swerving past two challenges and pushing on past a third and fourth defender before curling a beauty into the far, top corner. Hunger, ambition, confidence and ability all in one devastating burst of play.
Perhaps typically, Defoe’s impending departure raises questions, just as his entire career at Spurs has raised as many questions as answers. It is undoubtedly good for Defoe, at 31, to pick up a good wage and the chance to sample life in Toronto in a league that will love his talents. And it’s good business for Spurs to get £6m for him. But, as he showed again at the weekend, he can score goals – and goals are the things of real value in the game. The move may be good business, but is it good football? It’s a question not only raised by Defoe’s departure, but one that defines Spurs under Daniel Levy.
As for the Defoe debate, the only fact that matters is, Defoe has scored more times in Europe than any other Spurs player. And more times than all but four other Spurs players in the club’s history.
Martin Cloake’s books and ebooks on Spurs are available from http://www.martincloake.com/Bookstore.html