Saturday, December 22, 2012
Resilient Stoke stifle Spurs
Miguel Delaney, White Hart Lane
There were two telling moments that both bookended this game and completely summed it up. Within about three seconds and two touches of kick-off, Stoke lumped a high ball forward. Within two minutes of the end Sandro had no option but to shoot from distance as a frustrated Tottenham searched in vain for any kind of opening that might bring victory.
Of course, it was also just after Sandro's strike that Gylfi Sigurdsson forced an exceptional save from Asmir Begovic. The only reason that stop stood out so much, though, was because it was essentially the only such moment of the game. In fact, it took Tottenham 75 minutes to even get an effort on target.
The easy line here is to criticise Stoke for bringing the match - and Spurs - down to their level. In the first half, for example, the home side made it known they were going to match Stoke for physicality as Michael Dawson and the excellent Jan Vertonghen both offered abrasive challenges while Sandro got booked for one that was far too physical.
In truth, Tony Pulis deserves huge respect for fashioning a team that are one of the most difficult to play against in Europe at the moment, not to mention a properly accomplished defence.
As if to prove the fact, this was Stoke's ninth clean sheet of the campaign - the best record in the Premier League - and eighth consecutive game unbeaten. It's not just about the numbers but the nature. Other than those long shots, flashed crosses from deep - which Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth handled easily - and that one, single Sigurdsson opportunity, Tottenham didn't really get near the Stoke box.
Andre Villas-Boas could say little but describe it is a "difficult game".
"I want to be extremely positive, because the players really tried hard," he said. "It was never going to be easy. Stoke are on an unbeaten run for a reason. [They are] extremely competitive and extremely physical, difficult to break down, good organisation. Tremendous energy and power and it was never easy.
"They are extremely competitive and we tried mainly from outside the box, in our chances, never clear-cut because they are very, very narrow."
Pulis, meanwhile, declared himself pleased with the point if not completely with the performance.
"I thought we played really well first half, restricted Tottenham to just a few chances," he explained. "Second half, obviously, they put us under pressure and we're indebted to Asmir at the end, great save.
"Tottenham played very, very high up the pitch. We'd worked on just getting little set-ups on runners and it worked really well for periods, but maybe not as long as we'd have hoped. But not taking anything away from Tottenham. The way Tottenham play, and the players they've got. They're going to retain the ball a lot more than us and that's no disrespect to us. It's just the way it is."
The last sentence could sum up a lot about Stoke. Because, even if you dislike their style, you can't but respect the results they get and the progress they've made. Pulis has built an established Premier League club, with the foundation that excellent defence. Everywhere Tottenham looked or tried to put the ball, there was an imposing or industrious figure ready to cut them out.
"Defensively, we looked solid," Pulis said. "We've talked about the two centre-halves and the goalkeeper but the rest of the players, they worked hard. We work very hard on discipline. We're pleased. It's a great point for us and this football club.
"We are trying to build. The thing is with our football club, irrespective of what people say or what they don't say, we'll do it the way we think is right. Gradually, over the years, we've got better every year in the Premier League. We just need to keep moving forward."
When they actually do so on the pitch, it isn't all about physicality or high balls. Although their best chance of the game, Kenwyne Jones' miss in the opening minute, came from that early punt, there were a few occasions where they tried to open up Tottenham on the break with some impressive slide-rule passes. Towards the end, Ryan Shotton really should have done better when Cameron picked Aaron Lennon's pocket and set the midfielder up.
At the other end there were a few issues for Tottenham. Although, as Villas-Boas insisted, this was always going to be a difficult game, Spurs do perhaps lack that kind of truly different creative presence to change such games; and, given that they've now dropped behind Arsenal despite so many ructions at the Emirates, that may be a situation that needs remedying.
Sigurdsson is notionally supposed to be that type of player but much of his goalscoring at Swansea came when he arrived late in the box, rather than having to fashion opportunities from just outside it. Similarly, Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor have still not scored a goal alongside each other in the Premier League. The former dropped far too deep here, the latter could only offer one moment of skill in the box and a stretched header over.
There is increasing talk that Spurs will make a move for Ajax's Christian Eriksen in January, which would tally with the fact he possesses exactly the kind of technique they occasionally lack when games are at their tightest.
As Villas-Boas admitted: "We couldn't find the goal that would unlock them and bring them out."
He did, however, re-assert that this was a good display. "Four teams are level on 30 points," he said. "It doesn't make any difference. I've been telling you this. The table is very, very tight and I think, on a weekend, everything can change and I think it changed this weekend. Obviously, we wanted to win but it's not a bad performance."
And, had Gareth Bale been giving a penalty when felled inside the box late on, it might have been a winning one.
Earlier on, Pulis was seen to go apoplectic on the line when the same player appeared to go down easy. Despite previously proving very critical of diving in the past, though, the Stoke manager wasn't prepared to bite this time: "I'll leave that. It's Christmas."
Even so, Stoke certainly aren't giving much away. And that is to their credit.