Spurs take a step in the right direction
This was never yet going to be Porto 2010-11, but it was still significant progress from Tottenham Hotspur. At Reading, Andre Villas-Boas' team improved in almost every area, most notably the scoreline as they claimed their first win of the Portuguese's reign.
Right from the start, though, there simply seemed a superior sharpness and shape about Spurs to that of the Norwich game two weeks ago. Most notably, Moussa Dembele's range of movement allowed the two full-backs to foray far higher up the pitch and, with Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jermain Defoe linking up excellently at times, that put Reading on the back foot from the off.
It must also be noted, though, that this was far from the Reading side that caused Chelsea so many problems. But maybe that's the point. It's 25 days since that fixture and the sluggishness often told at both ends. Up front, Pavel Pogrebnyak simply never got the joy out of Tottenham that he did against Gary Cahill and John Terry, with both William Gallas and Jan Verthongen usually clearing up with ease.
At the back, the Reading defence was routinely outpaced. Any time the Spurs attackers had space to run into - which was often - they looked an authentic threat. And, to a certain degree, this is one square that Villas-Boas is going to have to circle as his time in the job progresses. The Tottenham squad has an impressive amount of acceleration in it but that is generally only useful so long as you have a lot of ground to chew up - as Defoe did with his brilliant last goal. That isn't often the case, however, in a space-squeezing pressing game that relies less on running in lines and more on exploiting angles.
At the least, Spurs did exactly that on 18 minutes. Throughout their last few games, their attackers have been frequently attempting to pull off a specific three-step set-piece move: through-ball from attacker, cut-back from winger and finish from forward. In German coaching manuals, such moves are known as 'automatisms' and, when perfected, they can be devastating. Here, the triangle between Sigurdsson, Aaron Lennon and Defoe wasn't quite perfect yet but it was satisfactory. The winger cut back for the in-form Defoe to finish.
It was only illustrative of a team in transition, though, that such moves broke down at other times. On 30 minutes, Defoe could have dallied less on the ball to play in Sigurdsson quicker. On 51 minutes, another Lennon pass at speed only found a defender rather than Defoe.
That, of course, is to be expected. As has been said before on these pages, we're not going to get anything like a proper sense of Villas-Boas' team until he has had sufficient time to integrate his players into his system but, even allowing for that, it is amazing how much these matches can come down to little moments and how extensive the effect of those can be.
Because, despite the improvement in almost every area, the overall pattern of this match was still somewhat similar to the away side's last two games: Tottenham generally having the better of it early on, losing their way in the second half and then, eventually, conceding a late goal.
Amidst all of that, though, there was one crucial difference. Spurs had already made it 2-0, through Gareth Bale's scuffed finish. This time, they had got the rub of the green.
Villas-Boas ruminated on this after the match. "I think we reach these conclusions [that the team was in difficulty] because of those 1-1 draws at home," he said. "Had they not happened, we wouldn't have been in this [winless] position. It is important to recall that, in the games against West Brom and Norwich we had chances to go 2-0 and they might have been different results. We did it this time."
Big changes can happen on the back of such seemingly small moments, and that was certainly the case as regards the pressure around Spurs. "The team performed so well they kicked out any anxiety," Villas-Boas said. "They played in such a confident and concentrated way."
The Portuguese also dismissed the idea that he had been distracted by talk his job was on trouble, or that a recent Harry Redknapp interview about "bulls**t baffling minds" had irritated him. "I have no idea. I don't read the papers."
In terms of any criticism about how he gets his message across, Villas-Boas actually made himself loud and clear. "In the end, the most important thing is to find balance. It's not about a manager being old-school or whatever. The most important thing is you have to feel it. When you believe in what you do, and have conviction, you can sell it to your players."
That certainly seemed the case against Reading. "We are showing consistencies at the moment," he added. "We have room for improvement but it can happen soon. I think we see something in this team being put together, bearing in mind we have five or six new players." Brian McDermott concurred: "We were playing against a side on the top of their game today."
Well, perhaps not quite the top. Again, it's not yet the high-pressing, high-energy level of Villas-Boas's exceptional Porto team. But, finally, it's a real step in that direction.