It only took a few moments of Rodrigo Bentancur’s Premier League debut for the Uruguayan to provide a glimpse of his quality.
His first contribution was a smart turn away from trouble in midfield; his second of him at pinpoint cross-field pass to Lucas Moura.
Bentancur, a £ 21.5m signing from Juventus at the end of January, had replaced Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg with 60 minutes gone against Southampton at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Already he had the home fans purring.
The game would end in disappointment for Spurs, late goals from Mohamed Elyounoussi and Che Adams securing a dramatic 3-2 win for Saints, but Bentancur’s bow augured well for what was to come.
Two months on, he is living up to his early promise.
Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son have earned most of the plaudits for Tottenham’s recent improvement, scoring seven and four goals respectively during the run of five wins from seven games which has reignited their top-four challenge.
But Bentancur, together with his former Juventus team-mate Dejan Kulusevski, who followed him from Turin to north London on the same day, has played an important part too.
Alongside Hojbjerg in a two-man midfield, and in the absence of the injured Oliver Skipp and out-of-favor Harry Winks, Bentancur has brought balance and control in the center of the pitch, averaging more touches and passes per 90 minutes than anyone else.
Bentancur’s ability to hold onto the ball in tight spaces has aided Spurs, while supporters have also welcomed his willingness to play forward when the situation demands it – just as he did for the second goal in their recent 2-0 win over Brighton.
That through ball for Kane earned him his first assist, but his pass to the same player in the lead-up to Tottenham’s second against West Ham, when he curved a teasing ball just beyond the reach of Declan Rice in the center circle, better typified what he gives Spurs in possession.
On that occasion, the assist went to Kane, the striker subsequently feeding Son running in behind West Ham’s defense, but the pass before that, played from inside the Spurs half, was classic Bentancur – and no less important in creating the opening.
“My main role,” he told Sky Sports in February, “is to start the play.”
Bentancur excels in that regard but he also listed “closing down space” and “covering my defense if someone steps out to attack” among his primary duties in midfield, adding: “I’m more defensive than offensive.”
Those defensive duties require tactical discipline – a must for any player under the meticulous Antonio Conte – and also considerable stamina – another quality deemed vital by a manager who expects his players to “suffer” in pursuit of victory.
Bentancur has already shown his willingness to do that.
The 24-year-old is elegant on the ball but he has an appetite for the dirty work too.
In fact, on only his fourth appearance for Tottenham, in the dramatic 3-2 victory over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in February, Bentancur covered an extraordinary total of 13.1km – the most by any player in a Premier League game all season.
Kulusevski was not far behind him on 13km, and the duo’s presence at the top of the distance covered rankings highlights just one of the ways in which Conte felt they could help him.
“In these two players, we found all the characteristics for this league,” said Conte recently.
Their team-mates have been similarly impressed.
“They bring so much positive energy,” added Son. “They have a great work rate and a great attitude, which is always needed.” Indeed, those qualities appear to have rubbed off on many of those around them.
Bentancur brings a wealth of experience too, having spent four and a half seasons at Juventus to Kulusevski’s one and a half, helping the Turin side win three Serie A titles and two Coppa Italias, and developing what Conte has termed a “winning mentality”.
“He is only 24 years old but he has already played 200 games,” Conte explained to Sky Sports last month.
“It means he has great experience. He has played with his national team. He has played many games with Juventus, and to play many games with Juventus you have to show you deserve the chance and you have to be able to live with the high pressure. “
That experience of dealing with pressure has clearly helped Bentancur at Spurs. He was thrown into a struggling side, in what has long been a problem position for the club, and yet he hit the ground running, appearing to acclimatise to a new league and new country almost immediately.
Together with Kulusevski, he has made Spurs stronger. If he can continue fulfilling his early promise of him, a transfer window which he felt underwhelming at the time may instead be remembered as a triumph.
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