On Thursday, Younes Kaboul’s protracted exit from Tottenham was finally completed, with the French centre-half agreeing terms on a move to Sunderland.
It has been a long time coming; Kaboul has suffered a slow death under Mauricio Pochettino and, in spite of being awarded the club captaincy less than a year ago, he played his last Premier League game in November against Stoke City and hasn’t been seen in a Tottenham shirt in any capacity since the FA Cup defeat against Leicester City in late January.
Pochettino hasn’t acted unreasonably. While the player’s status within the squad may have made him a worthy captain back in August 2014, his performances in those early months were frequently chaotic and a player who was the bedrock of a resurgent Tottenham was an obvious liability.
The treatment of Kaboul may have been ruthless and he may privately feel that he has undeservedly been made an example of, but his swift demotion was indicative of the meritocratic ethos which now runs through this Spurs squad.
There have been whispers about Kaboul and he was rumoured to have aligned himself with the small cabal of disaffected players who resisted Pochettino’s methods, but his initial devaluation at White Hart Lane clearly began with his loss of form. His response to his demotion may have ensured that his future would continue away from the club, but – as is so often the case in football – his under-performance has been the decisive factor.
But what a player Kaboul once was. Most Tottenham supporters will be indifferent to his sale and some may even greet it with enthusiasm, but really it’s a sad end to an even sadder episode.
Younes Kaboul’s Spurs career didn’t end last week, it died in August 2012. In the opening game of that Premier League season, he suffered a knee injury at Newcastle that ended his campaign and – cruelly – cut him down at the peak of his powers. Kaboul was a great defender; built like a vending machine, he was ideally suited to the rough-and-tumble world of English football. His physical dominance in the penalty-box and his surprising speed across the ground was, at the time, allowing him to evolve into one of the best defenders in the country.
Having played almost 200 professional games, he was reaching a point at which he genuinely understood how to read a game and use his body and that period marked a wonderful confluence of those newly-acquired cerebral attributes and his more obvious, long-standing physical gifts.
It may sound slightly fanciful now, but which English-based central-defender, other than maybe Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, was playing to a higher level than Kaboul between 2011 and 2012?
But injuries do strange things to players. Long after the stitches have been removed and the rehabilitation programs have been completed, players can still be scarred – and Kaboul is an example of someone who never completely healed. Another injury disrupted season in 2013/14 provided little assurance that his previous standard was re-attainable and, while managers came and went, the common thread was Kaboul’s oddly constant vulnerability.
During his first spell at the club – before his brief sojourn to Portsmouth – he was a very erratic player: he was rash, impulsive and overly-reliant on his physical abilities. That was a different sort of problem, though, and even in those days and in spite of how maddening he could be to watch, there was an obvious promise to Kaboul and a feeling that, if his imperfections could be sanded away, he would evolve into an excellent player.
And that was borne out; at Fratton Park he matured very swiftly and to such an extent that Tottenham were compelled to re-sign him in January 2010. True, that transfer owed a lot to a favourable sell-on clause and to a series of outstanding installments from the original deal, but he had earned a second chance and, once back in North London, his exponential improvement was plainly evident.
There’s no optimism now – or, at least, there’s no justifiable reason for any. His malaise can’t be attributed to a lack of experience or anything short-term; there is a serious structural problem within his game and nothing to-date has suggested that it’s curable.
Maybe it’s a lingering physical issue, a bruised ego, or a paucity of confidence. Who knows. But careers aren’t always cyclical and a plummet isn’t always followed by a resurgence. Maybe then – sadly – his decline is already permanent.
Sunderland might be the start of a new beginning and we may yet get another glimpse of Kaboul’s potential, but it seems destined to be another chapter in a depressing story – one which emphasises just how tenuous a top-level career can be.