Why Jermain Defoe Didn’t Reach the Highest Level?


Jermain Defoe is a top Premier League ‘star’ with Tottenham who has played for England on 48 occasions. His Premier League goal tally for Spurs is 79 while he has 15 goals for England but in his career he hasn’t achieved the highest levels that were predicted for him as  a young player. Managers persist in using him as a substitute who can come off the bench in the final minutes of a game in the hope of snatching a crucial goal against tiring defenders. At that he has been very successful with a record 20 Premier League goals after coming on as a substitute, more than any other player.

As Andre Villas-Boas continues his preparations for the new season at Tottenham with the probable signing of Emmanuel Adebayor and on-going negotiations to sign a top class striker, it looks increasingly likely that Defoe will be moving on in the coming weeks. Three Premier League clubs have been reported in the media to be interested in a player who was a member of England’s Euro 2012 squad – Queen’s Park Rangers as well as newly promoted Reading and West Ham United.

Last week there was a discussion on Talksport considering why Defoe hadn’t made it at the very highest level? – a good Premier League and England player, without any doubt, but not one of the highest class. As a young player Defoe was expected to go on to achieve even more than he has in the twelve years since his Premier League debut.

A Highly Regarded Schoolboy

Defoe was a highly regarded schoolboy with Charlton Athletic and caused controversy when, at the age of sixteen, he moved to West Ham United and signed his first professional contract at Upton Park. Working under Harry Redknapp, for the first time, he was sent out in 2000 on loan to Bournemouth where he hit the headlines by scoring in ten consecutive matches in the Second Division. Returning to West Ham he was the club’s highest scorer the following season even though manager, Glenn Roeder had used him mainly as a substitute. The next season, after West Ham’s relegation, his relationship with the club suffered and in January, 2004 he signed Tottenham for £7 million.

Tottenham – Defoe or Keane?

At Spurs, Jermain Defoe, aged 21 years, got off to a great start, scoring on his debut against Portsmouth. Supporters had high expectations for their new striker who partnered Robbie Keane. During that first spell at White Hart Lane the manager selected two from four strikers and Martin Jol frequently opted for either Defoe or Keane with one other.  This caused much messageboard discussion – no many arguments – over who was better – Jermain Defoe or Robbie Keane. Both had their supporters and neither side would concede ground. Defoe had many good moments for Spurs including a hat-trick against Southampton – but when managers had a decision to make on team formation, it was often Defoe who missed out.

Juande Ramos decided on Dimitar Berbatov and Keane as his main strike partnership so Defoe was transferred to Portsmouth and re-united with Redknapp in January, 2008. A year later Redknapp who was now the Tottenham manager, resigned Defoe. The following summer Peter Crouch joined from Portsmouth and he again linked up with Defoe with whom he had developed a good understanding during six months at Fratton Park. This proved effective as Tottenham qualified for the Champions League in fourth place in May, 2010 with Defoe having displayed his scoring ability with ta hat-trick at Hull City and five against Wigan Athletic. During the August transfer window, however, the late and unexpected arrival of Rafael Van der Vaart put Defoe’s place under threat especially as the Dutchman quickly developed an understanding with Crouch, benefiting from the tall striker’s knockdowns to score a number of goals during his early games for Spurs. Redknapp came more and more to use Defoe from the bench when Van der Vaart was available, especially as he was looking to use a 4-4-1-1 formation with the Dutch player in a deeper role. For Defoe to play Spurs needed to revert to the more traditional 4-4-2 formation which fewer teams used. That season was a particularly difficult time for Defoe especially in the League, having to wait until March for his first League goal, although he had scored in FA Cup and Champions League matches. He was rarely first choice among the strikers, more often playing in the final minutes of a game.


A similar situation developed with England – Defoe would be selected for the squad but rarely made the first choice eleven but would then be called on from the substitutes’ bench. His last England goals were a hat-trick against Bulgaria in September, 2010 but too often he failed to be given a starting place in the team. The new England manager, Roy Hodgson, clearly regarded him as back-up to the younger strikers at Euro 2012 as Defoe only made one brief appearance as a substitute against France in the opening match.

Why did Defoe not achieve more?

The first Spurs’ supporter on the Talksport phone-in immediately gave two reasons which Spurs fans would support:

  • Off-side – Defoe was caught off-side far too often
  • Too greedy – all strikers need to have that selfish streak to be top class goal scorers but for Defoe his first option was to blast the ball, often over the bar, even when a team mate was available in a better position.

To these I would add:

  • Lack of service – during his first period at Spurs, their creative options were limited and the strikers had very little service. On occasions when Defoe did start a game, he would labour for an hour or more with little or no service and only as he trooped off, substituted again, were Spurs bringing on wide players who could have created something for their main striker. This must have been very demoralising for Defoe.
  • Defenders found him out – for me this is the crucial point. After Defoe’s initial success, defenders realised that his striking strength was when he received the ball on the edge of the box with his back to goal. His standard routine was a quick turn and shot from which he often scored. Once defenders had understood this,they quickly shut him down and cut out the main weapon in his goal scoring armoury. Many players can re-invent themselves but Defoe didn’t and he became less effective.
  • Goalscoring instinct – he is probably the club’s most natural goalscorer but doesn’t possess that goalscorers’ instinct of being in the ‘right place at the right time’. How often has He been found at the near post when the ball has been played to the back post or sliding in on goal but just a split second too late to reach the ball for a certain goal – it happens in every game. Instinctive players are in the right place and often Defoe wasn’t.
  • Striking Partner – Defoe didn’t really develop a great strike partnership with any of the other strikers at the club. Many top strikers hunt in pairs but while he played with many different strikers there was never a totally successful partnership. All were satisfactory but open to change when difficulties arose. One of his better understandings was with Wayne Rooney when playing for England but even the national team coaches weren’t prepared to work at developing it.

Defoe is now at an age, 29 years, that as he admits himself he needs to be playing regularly. He doesn’t have too many years left in top flight football and he wants to make the most of them. He hasn’t asked to leave Tottenham but for him it would probably be best if he moved on to another Premier League team where they would be prepared to play to his strengths and make the most of his goalscoring talent. He has been loyal to Spurs and it would be sad to see him leave but that is probably the most likely outcome of Tottenham’s search for additional strikers this summer.