It’s easy to forget that Rodrigo Bentancur is just 24-years-old, particularly when you watch him stroll imperiously around a Premier League pitch.
His 21-year-old former Juventus team-mate Dejan Kulusevski has perhaps taken more of the limelight since they arrived on transfer deadline day in January, with his two goals and five assists, the latter number more than any other player in the Premier League since that day. However, Bentancur has been equally important for Antonio Conte and Tottenham in the center of the pitch.
For the Uruguayan is a young player with more experience than your usual 24-year-old. He’s already won three Serie A titles, Argentina’s Primera Division twice, the Copa Italia twice, the Supercoppa Italian twice and the Copa Argentina. In short, Spurs have bought a winner and someone who knows what it takes to help a team get over that line. He played 181 matches within the pressure cooker that is Juventus.
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While Bentancur had become slightly less of a guaranteed starter at the Serie A giants this season – he was still in the line-up for the majority of their matches – his importance to their last title win in 2020 – his third with them – is widely acknowledged.
He’s earned his praise over the years with his confidence in the center of the pitch. Following an impressive full debut as a 20-year-old against Fiorentina in 2017, he caught the eye of Juventus goalkeeper and legend Gianluigi Buffon, who said: “Bentancur has something different to everyone else. He’s reliable tactically, technically and psychologically.”
His then (and later) manager Max Allegri had told the media ahead of that season: “We also have Bentancur, who may be the surprise of the championship.”
Conte and Spurs’ managing director of football Fabio Paratici, a Juventus employee for more than a decade, knew that when Bentancur became available and other Premier League sides started sniffing around, it was an opportunity to bring him to north London.
The deal to do so could end up being one of the bargain buys of the season. Paratici prised him away for just £ 15.8m, payable within three financial years, with up to £ 5m more on top if specific ‘performance objectives’ are met during his time with Spurs.
When asked what he would bring to Spurs, Bentancur said of himself: “I would say I’m a very tactical player who covers free spaces, does well when winning the ball back and moves it forward quickly. I also think I have scope to improve even more and I can do so as part of this team at Spurs.
“I am looking forward to learning from Antonio Conte – I think he’s a great coach, he wants to win and gets 150 per cent out of his players. I think he’ll make me improve even more, both mentally and as a player. I like that, and it’s a big motivation for me. “
The Conte angle is an interesting one. One Italian journalist at Tottenham’s match at Manchester City in February, early into Bentancur’s second start for Spurs, told football.london not to expect much in the way of forward passing from the Uruguay international and that he would make plenty of mistakes in the midfield.
Bentancur would go on to show otherwise, playing the perfect first-time ball into the path of Kulusevski, who swept up the right flank to cross for Harry Kane to head home Spurs’ late winner.
While it might not have been a major feature in his role at Juventus – despite 18 assists for the Old Lady – Conte’s system insists that Bentancur’s forward momentum will be encouraged.
He grabbed an assist for Kane’s goal at Brighton and there have been countless occasions when the 24-year-old has turned play around and quickly got the ball up the pitch with precision.
His performance against West Ham a fortnight ago showed it off to perfection. There was a spin and pass to Kulusevski in the build-up to Son Heung-min’s shot hitting the post in the first half and then an inch-perfect ball to Kane which took Declan Rice out of the game, giving the Spurs striker the space to hit a sublime through ball for Son to score Tottenham’s second goal.
Bentancur then made a tackle and surged forward to ignite a move in the second half which resulted in Kane being denied by the keeper. There was also a first-time spin and pass to Matt Doherty which sparked another break that culminated in the Uruguay international keeping pace with the attack and firing his own shot low and just wide of goal.
The game also brought one Bentancur moment in the second half that evoked memories of Mousa Dembele as he executed the coolest, calmest yet scariest pirouette on the edge of his own box. Two West Ham players were sent the wrong way while everyone in the stadium held their breath for a moment.
Bentancur’s stats from that game said it all, with 103 touches of the ball, 100 per cent of his tackles won, 100 per cent of accurate long balls, 100 per cent of his take-ons successful and 94.7 per cent pass accuracy with his 94 passes. He also made two key tackles and one interception.
After the encounter, Match of the Day 2 pundit and former Spurs midfielder Danny Murphy said of Bentancur: “This guy is elegant. He is classy. He makes the game look easy and he plays the game forward.”
Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire once said ‘you complete me’ and that’s how Conte feels about his new central midfielder and Kulusevski.
After Sunday’s 5-1 mauling of Newcastle, the Italian said: “Also Rodrigo Bentancur with us, I said that with these two players, despite that we lost four players in January, with these two new signings we made this squad more complete, with more balance.
“I think that it’s very important in football to have a clear idea, and to have a good vision, because in this way, the situation is more simple.”
That’s the key with Bentancur. He makes the game look simple even in moments when it’s clearly not, when space is tight and opponents are closing in around him.
That’s when his new Spurs team-mates can trust him and give him the ball. It’s no coincidence that in recent weeks Tottenham have stopped hitting the ball long and look far more comfortable in bringing the ball out of the back with Hugo Lloris passing it short out to the defense, who then often look for Bentancur as their outlet.
He has become a deep-lying hub of what Tottenham do and he’s building on his already formed relationship with Kulusevski, with a mutual respect forged with Kane.
“Technically and physically, he is an incredible player, very complete,” Bentancur said of Kane in an interview in South America with ESPN last month. “It is an honor and a pleasure to have him as a team-mate.
“I’m very happy and getting minutes. It’s the best league at the moment. I’m very happy to play for Tottenham in that league and to be taking this opportunity.”
Bentancur’s arrival has also reignited Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who is thriving again alongside him, with Conte saying on Sunday: “You know Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg are playing in a massive way.
“Pierre, no one asked me about him, but I think in every game he is doing a fantastic job, with the ball, without the ball, strong physically. Every player is improving their level and for this reason Tottenham is going up and up . “
It’s early days for Bentancur and his style, mixing aggression with laid-back moments, will produce the odd mistake and mislaid pass but on the whole he’s been a major success in Spurs’ midfield and his composure and experience at just 24 is proving to be contagious.
What’s really exciting is that Conte is unlocking more of the Uruguayan’s game and he’s only going to get better.