Right now, it’s a pretty good time to be a Spurs fan. Saturday saw a first win at Old Trafford in 23 years, as Andre Villas-Boas’s men faced it all, stood tall and did it their way against a relentless second half Man United assault. Given Spurs’ share of losing over the years away to Man United and to other big sides (just four wins out of a possible eighty away to Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool), winning was as shocking as it was joyful for the Spurs players, coaches and fans who were in paroxysms of delight after the final whistle.
There’s also a noticeably better mood around the club. Winning is the best tonic there is when a club isn’t performing well, and three consecutive wins have seen Spurs rocket up the table to the extent they’re currently two points ahead of the much more highly touted Arsenal. Not to mention the improved team performances, new signings Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and to a lesser extent Clint Dempsey making excellent starts and the team showing increasing signs they are getting acclimatised to Villas-Boas’s style of play.
Also the tabloid’s press brazen, blatant anti-Andre Villas-Boas agenda has in a way unified the fans. The Sun, who Harry Redknapp writes a column for, saying Spurs were in ‘turmoil’ without a single quote attributed to anyone and without the slightest shred of evidence shows what a grubby, hypocritical, disgusting publication it is.
After the story was published in The Sun on Saturday, complaints from Spurs fans were not about Villas-Boas’s management but about the newspaper who printed the piece of garbage. The praise from fans for Villas-Boas when he mocked a journalist asking whether Hugo Lloris was ‘frustrated’ at not starting in the first XI showed that the fans are increasingly on his side. And not just due to Spurs performing a bit better.
The sheer unfairness of the media’s treatment of Villas-Boas has created a siege mentality, a desire to get behind the new manager and give him a chance to show what he can do with a team more open to his ideas than Chelsea were.
Tottenham is at the moment a happy club delighting in a shock win over the team they never usually beat. But that’s not to say everything is hunky dory. As good as performances have been, there is still an awful lot of improving that Spurs need to do if they are going to finish in the European places in the league and have at least one long cup run.
The first area where they need to improve is when they are in the lead in a match. Spurs lost leads at home to Norwich and West Brom, conceded a late goal away to Newcastle and though they hung on to beat QPR and United at the weekend, weaknesses were still evident.
The way Spurs, as soon as they came under any sort of pressure from United in the second half defended very deep was very worrying. It was worrying because they abandoned what had worked so well in the first half. In the first half, Spurs pressed, harried and hustled the ancient United midfield. They gave them no time on the ball and snuffed out attacks before the ball reached the penalty area. Spurs effectively Bilbao’d United.
But in the second half, they retreated so deep they could have been on the London Underground. It was alarmingly like watching England play, the way any sort of tactical plan was abandoned in favour of defending virtually on their own goal line and occasionally punting the ball up the pitch to the opposition goalkeeper or centre half, who would initiate yet another attack. Inviting pressure and relying on opposition misses may have worked on Saturday, but more often than not will result in losing more leads than a careless dog owner.
Spurs only had 12% possession in the second half against United. That’s abysmal. You consistently retain leads by keeping possession and posing a meaningful threat of scoring more goals. England will attest to how desperate defending and having an inability to retain the ball is a recipe for constant failure. Given Spurs’ earlier struggles to keep hold of a lead, that’s something Villas-Boas and Spurs will need to work on. Some blamed the second half display on tiredness. If that’s the case, more fitness work is required so that their pressing game can be sustained for more than 45 minutes. Those ‘double training sessions’ The Sun said were causing friction may actually help the players.
Another thing Tottenham need to do is work out how to play at home. In three league games at home, they’ve drawn to West Brom and Norwich and had to scrap ferociously and rely on the occasional goalscorer ‘Own Goal’ to help beat bottom of the table QPR 2-1. The performances and results have like a serial adulterer been better away from home than at home and this obviously needs to change.
The atmosphere at home games so far hasn’t been the best. Poor performances, poor results, high equalisers and conceding late equalisers don’t equate to a positive vibe being created. Booing has been a feature of the teams going for half time and full time. Tension and nervousness has emanated from the stands, which while not the sole reason for Spurs struggling at home obviously doesn’t help. The win away to United will hopefully help cultivate a more positive feeling at White Hart Lane which will spread to the players on the pitch.
Also at home Spurs have perhaps struggled due to their reliance on the counter attack. Spurs have so far scored three counter attacking goals this season, more than anyone else in the league. At home it’s obviously much harder to do that when you’re playing teams less willing to be attacking and go for it. More guile and creativity, possibly coming from the so far underperforming Gylfi Sigurdsson is needed.
Spurs haven’t dominated teams at home. West Brom, Norwich and QPR are not especially great sides, particularly the latter two. Yet at White Hart Lane they were just as good, if not better than Tottenham and probably deserved more than they got. In those games Spurs had no cohesion or rhythm, were vulnerable at the back and couldn’t string a pass together. It was as if Jacques Santini was back in the manager’s dugout for the first half of the QPR match so dismal was the display.
Spurs have simply got to pass the ball better, monopolise possession better and also be better defensively. With Sandro and Dembele in central midfield they only have one pure defensive midfielder, and Sandro for all his qualities isn’t always the best distributor of the ball and also has a penchant for conceding silly fouls. He’s a terrific ball winner but doesn’t give the defence the best protection in the world, and with Spurs having adventurous full backs it leaves them open defensively and is perhaps why they are yet to keep a clean sheet this season.
On the whole though, Spurs are making progress. They have in place a footballing philosophy and a style of play Villas-Boas looks set to stick with, the strengths of which were in evidence on Saturday. With Hugo Lloris and Emmanuel Adebayor set to improve an already very good side when they are gently brought into the first team, it’s an exciting time to support Spurs. The potential’s there for great things to happen, for Harry Redknapp’s fine achievements with Spurs to be eclipsed.
There are improvements to be made. Retaining possession of the ball more, defending with extra purpose, scoring more goals from open play to complement their potentially lethal counter-attacking and further getting the players used to the style of play are all things that should only get better as time goes on.
Villas-Boas took the blows at Chelsea, at Spurs is truly doing things his way and the signs are very promising.