Fearless Rodrigo Bentancur keeps Tottenham ticking under pressure

Rodrigo Bentancur was four years old when his mother died. It is why he wears the No 30 shirt, commemorating the date of her birthday. When he was 13, he left his small town in Uruguay to live at the Boca Juniors academy in Buenos Aires. When he was 19, he had the chance to move to Europe, a decision that terrified him. “When they talked about the possibility of coming to Juventus, I panicked,” he would later remember. “I was very happy, but also very scared.”

The point of dredging all this up now is that when you have overcome challenges of this magnitude, perhaps you become more relaxed about the prospect of being outnumbered three on two in midfield. Life taught Bentancur to grow up fast, that the only real defence against adversity is fearlessness. This may well explain his unusual maturity on the pitch, the tenacity that has made him one of the most impressive midfielders in the Premier League and – with apologies to Harry Kane – probably Tottenham’s best player this season.

For most of his nine months in English football, Bentancur has been able to do his work under the radar. He signed on the same day as the more obviously thrilling Dejan Kulusevski, shares an international dressing room with proper stars such as Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani and Federico Valverde, contributes few goals and assists, and does not have the sort of game that can easily be chopped up and set to a horrific Eurodance soundtrack on YouTube.

Even now the eye is more often drawn to his grizzled midfield partner Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, a player who tears around the pitch with the sweaty frenzy of a man being chased by wild dogs while wearing bacon shorts.

And so for those not watching too closely it has been possible to overlook exactly what Bentancur has been doing out there, particularly in a Tottenham midfield that so often looks stressed and overstretched, hammered to molecular thinness by Antonio Conte’s rope-a-dope counterattacking game. But to see Bentancur as a thankless victim of Conte-ball is to misread the issue entirely. On the contrary: he is the guy making it work.

One measure of his importance is that Tottenham concede a goal every 96 minutes when he is on the pitch and a goal every 56 minutes when he is not.

Even by his standards, the last week has been particularly good to the 25-year-old. There was a sensational performance in the Champions League at Marseille on Tuesday: a hostile crowd, a defensive siege, everything on the line. Before that there was the injury-time winner against Bournemouth on Saturday, and while Bentancur scores only rarely this was about as on-brand a goal as it is possible to conceive: receiving the ball in a crowded area, beset by a swarm of opposition shirts, and yet still somehow finding the grace to pick his spot and sidefoot the ball through a forest of bodies. Now he prepares to face Liverpool on Sunday.

His coolness under pressure – an ability to tackle mercilessly, play quick passes off both feet, run tirelessly in the most crowded part of the pitch – is what sets him apart. His chief weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the press. In the Champions League group stage he was in the top five players for distance covered, among those with a minimum of 500 minutes. His top speed was higher than that of Kulusevski or Richarlison. This week Ryan Sessegnon revealed that Bentancur has the lowest body-fat percentage of any Tottenham player.

So why were Juventus prepared to let him go for just £15m in January? Partly it was a move driven by short-term expediency: laden with debt, they were keen to free up funds to sign Dusan Vlahovic from Fiorentina. But there was also a sense in Turin that he had begun to stagnate under Massimiliano Allegri, that errors were beginning to creep into his game. And yet Bentancur’s progress ever since suggests that his own inconsistency was part of a much wider dysfunction at the club, a yearning for the sort of deep-lying regista-style midfielder that Juventus have lacked since the departure of Miralem Pjanic in 2020.

Bentancur is not really that sort of player, but nor is he a straightforward destroyer. In fact you wonder whether Conte sees something of himself in Bentancur: a fearless, high-energy, high-mileage midfielder with a sound passing range and the combative streak he so admires.

A more recent parallel might be Mousa Dembélé, one of the more underrated players in that spellbinding Mauricio Pochettino team. That ability to turn defence into attack with maximum speed and minimum risk has been perhaps the most conspicuous deficiency of more recent Tottenham sides, and an area in which previous candidates Giovani Lo Celso, Tanguy Ndombele and Harry Winks have to various degrees been found wanting.

This has been a curious season for Tottenham, who sit third but have given the impression of a team playing at the very edge of their limits: well-coached and mentally tough but lacking the depth and coherence of their rivals immediately below them. And in a sense it is Bentancur, more than Kane or Højbjerg, who is holding this frenetic and fragile side together. The margins are paper-thin. There are little fires everywhere you look. A horde of opponents snapping at their heels and a vague whiff of foreboding in the air. And this, you suspect, is how he likes it best.