Sunday, October 7, 2012
Spurs click into gear against Villa
Miguel Delaney, White Hart Lane
Four wins in a row for Tottenham Hotspur but, perhaps more importantly, also something of a tour de force.
• Tottenham 2-0 Aston Villa
• AVB allays Friedel fears
This victory over Aston Villa was undoubtedly Spurs' most impressive performance of the season so far and, whisper it, the closest to Andre Villas-Boas's FC Porto side since he arrived in England.
And, after the groundbreaking win at Old Trafford and before a big clash against another of his old sides in Chelsea, that puts Tottenham in a particularly intriguing position. Almost everything about this display was impressive, from the very Porto-like intensity and pace of the attacking to the fact the team secured their first clean sheet of the season.
That simple stat put a very different spin on the most controversial pre-match decision, as Villas-Boas decided to end Brad Friedel's eight-year run of consecutive Premier League appearances by granting Hugo Lloris his debut. The Frenchman also provided two fine first-half saves.
As solid as Lloris was, though, the clean sheet wasn't completely down to his reliability. At 0-0 just after half-time, Christian Benteke missed the best chance of the game for Villa.
Paul Lambert, who otherwise marshalled his team quite well in the face of intensive Tottenham attacks, cited the missed chance as the game's turning point. "I thought it was a big moment," he said. "There was nothing much in the game. Certainly, we were holding our own, that's for sure. When you get chances like that, you've got to score at a place like this."
Soon, Tottenham showed why. And, to give Lambert credit, he did praise the "vibrancy" of the Spurs attacking. As the Villa manager put it, "they're coming at you from all angles".
Eventually, the levy broke. On 58 minutes, a corner flashed across the Villa box, Jermain Defoe struck and the ball deflected off Steven Caulker and in. Nine minutes later, Spurs broke with purpose, Clint Dempsey found Aaron Lennon and the winger slid a shot past Brad Guzan.
That latter interchange, though, was particularly noteworthy. In the first few games of the season, as Spurs were getting used to a new approach, it was often as if there was no real firm plan once play advanced past Mousa Dembele in central midfield. Lennon didn't really know where he was going, Gylfi Sigurdsson didn't really seem to know where he was playing.
None of that is the case now. Spurs appear to have clicked, with every member of the attacking quartet looking much more comfortable and focused in their role. Unfortunately for Sigurdsson, though, he is no longer in it, with Dempsey's assist indicating how much more quickly he has integrated.
To give the Icelandic midfielder his due, though, he did come on to link up superbly with another sub in Emmanuel Adebayor. By then, after Gareth Bale had also hit the post, it could easily have been a more emphatic three or four.
And, interestingly, Villas-Boas put that down to the less pleasing first three games of the season. He did, however, reject any premature comparisons with Porto.
He said: "No, it's very early stages. At the moment, we are getting the results that we want. If you remember, when we first had that run, we welcomed the packing of the fixtures because it allowed the players meet more often and more quickly get to know each other and we are benefiting from that fact. We are almost a new team.
"It was extremely good after the effort we put in Greece [against Panathinakos in the Europa League], coming back at four in the morning, a tiring flight, and I think the players responded to the midweek physical effort with tremendous power. We managed to play both halves with the same intensity.
"The ambition to be among the top teams in this group is immense."
That's not all that is likely to be immense over the next two weeks. There will also be the hype around Villas-Boas as he hosts one of those top teams, his old club Chelsea. Although mention of the league leaders dominated his press conference, the Spurs manager attempted to bring it all down to very general terms.
"I think only in a collective sense. When you play an unbeaten leader, you can use motivation.
"It's going to be a totally different type of game. Something that is surprising everybody is that Chelsea have lots of creative players in the team, offering dynamic movements. We understand that this mobility behind Fernando Torres can cause you problems. It will be a very difficult game but we are showing good levels of confidence. We will profit from the fact we are playing at home against the unbeaten league leaders."
Of course, after his first few results and the early controversy over Lloris's omission, there initially appeared the prospect of Villas-Boas recreating one of his Chelsea problems with needless mismanagement of personnel.
Unlike only a month ago, though, Villas-Boas explained Sunday's decision in a much more understandable, straight-up way. "I was speaking about it with the technical staff this week," he said. "After Panathinakos we thought it would be something that would be logical if we wanted to get Hugo acquainted with Premier League type of games. So, obviously, the chance is not based on performance because Brad has been immense for this football team.
"We spoke with Brad [before the Villa game] because he deserves that respect. He was obviously disappointed but accepted it as the good professional that he is."
Such clarity is perhaps one of the benefits that come with positive results and progress. There is no longer need to fudge issues for fear of any backlash to add to bad scorelines. It was also telling that, when Tottenham scored, we didn't quite see the overly emotional reaction that Villas-Boas had displayed previously. A new focus from Spurs was evident everywhere.
Lloris, however, wasn't the only interesting selection decision of the day. There was also Paul Lambert's omission of Darren Bent - particularly in light of the woeful miss by his replacement, Benteke. "That's the decision I make," Lambert said. "That's the system I play. It was the right one in my view."
To be fair to the Villa manager, his team did handle Spurs quite well until the home side's energy spilled over. Lambert also refused to blame either the recently-arrived Benteke or his team in general.
"I can't fault the lads for effort. They gave me everything and there was some good football played. We're disappointed to come away losing."
By contrast, Spurs keep on winning. "For us it will give us a chance to finally break into the top four and join the elite in the Premiership," Villas-Boas said afterwards.
On Sunday, they certainly played that way.