Tottenham Hotspur’s spring tour of the lower regions of the Premier League finished in the Midlands on a frustrating note as we hammered away at Villa’s massed ranks for 90 minutes without scoring from open play. Going down to ten men early in the second made only a momentary difference to the pattern of a game where we had all the ball, plenty of shots, countless corners but were unable to find that single moment of finesse to create a golden chance. As it was, we bludgeoned away at the one place where our opponents were strong, the centre of their defence, with a predictable lack of success.
It’s set up a cataclysmic final day at the Lane this coming Sunday that epitomises the contradictory nature of being a fan: we could well do without it but are desperately compelled to be there. Last August, the promise of the chance to take third place would have been enticing. Now, it’s laced with fear and dread, a threatening reminder of the devastating emptiness of failure rather than the prospect of joyous glory just 6 days away.
This of all seasons, where we have at times played the best football in a Spurs generation, will generate more debate than any other. Look back for a turning point and there’s something in most of the last twenty-odd games, ranging from the whole tactical and motivational approach at the club through the capitulation at the Emirates, refereeing decisions at Stoke, the January window and the width of the lace of Defoe’s boot away at City.
Yesterday was no exception. This tour has not shown the best side of scenic England. At least Bolton were brave enough to play some football and take the game to us. If you want another turning point to add to the lengthy list, Boyata’s miss just before half-time tipped the balance of that match at least. Blackburn and Villa were both awful but whereas the former lacked motivation and resolve, Villa seemed hamstrung with nerves and fearful of their own lack of ability to create any sort of attack. By the finish, their manager was slumped in his seat sharing dark jokes with a coach, the result in the hands of fate. There was nothing more he could do as his eleven were swamped by our ten.
Yet by then they had managed to score from open play, something we conspicuously failed to do. Granted it was courtesy of a giant deflection – I don’t see how Friedel could have reached it – but it was another crucial moment. We should have closed down the scorer but by then had already established the pattern, pushing forward from all sides and angles. We should and could have more alert to the basics at the back.
You want turning points? As if that wasn’t enough for one match, how about an inexperienced full-back charging in for a loose ball in a relatively safe area with his foot off the ground? Rose was a little unfortunate – the ball was off the turf but he caught Hutton with his follow through. However, he had to go. Whilst I admire his commitment to go wholeheartedly for that ball, a calmer head would have shown the discretion that was required at that point. As it was, chasing the game and down to ten men.
Our panic was comical. Having totally dominated, we then madly kicked the ball backwards high towards the goal, fell over and generally went barmy. Soon it became apparent that it really didn’t make much difference. Villa had no idea what to do with the ball so allowed us to re-establish control. For the rest of the match we huffed and puffed, forcing our opponents back into their box as they threw the wagons into a circle for a last ditch rearguard action.
In the end, it was an old failing that did for us. Despite being gifted an opening when the otherwise inspiring Dunne fouled Sandro in the box, we failed to capitalise. Early in the season we could break down defences through movement, pace and patience. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost that ability. Once again we could not find a way through the massed ranks. Bolton win friends because they want to play but we ruthlessly exploited the gaps that they left behind. When Villa had no inclination or apparent understanding of how to keep the ball in our half of the field even though they had an extra man, it’s a very different matter.
I’m not inclined to be too harsh. If you had joined the game for the last 25 minutes, there was no way to tell we were a man down. However, although we kept plugging away, we could never produce the width or the extra man to make the breakthrough. In the first half, our moves broke down late on as we got near their box through lack of a decent final ball. Modric disappointingly never found his range, while Bale and Lennon came inside too frequently where the ponderous but stout Villa back four were ready for them. Not a great one for stats, nevertheless at half time my stream showed that only 6% of our attacks came down the left. With Bale and Rose, we needed more but the latter’s dismissal scuppered the half-time tactics talk to give us more width.
As it was, we repeated past patterns of failure. A stream of crosses into the box that the Villa centrebacks headed away. They did it extremely well, all credit to them, but as I’ve said before in these cyberpages, I’ve spotted that we only have one big striker, Spurs still haven’t picked that up. Villa wouldn’t budge and we did not demonstrate the patience or wit to hold onto the ball and try to shift them from their entrenched positions. Back to the ten men again, back to the might have beens.
Nobody played particularly badly. Rose’s positional play was dodgy again and Luka’s passing was way off. No one had an especially good game. Kaboul made some fine tackles but at other times was wayward and impetuous. Sandro was strong and mobile, Lennon was bright and Manu’s movement was decent. Redknapp dithered over substitutions but I’m feeling unduly sympathetic. I would have brought on Defoe and gone for the win – even allowing for the remote possibility of Villa scoring, a draw doesn’t do us much good. Parker on earlier and three at the back could have calmed us down but to be fair we were well on top and I can see the argument not to change anything. I did enjoy the moment when JD nearly came on. HR gave him an unusually long set of instructions whilst Defoe took not a blind bit of notice.
Win against Fulham, that’s fourth and then see what happens at the Hawthorns. Rest well this week then give it everything. If we do, we will win. The stomach-churning, gut-wrenching nausea is already making me giddy and weak. Yesterday I made the mistake of eating lunch at half-time. I nearly threw up later as the tension cranked up to ridiculous levels. Goodness what Sunday will be like but the prospect of redemption will lift me to the heights. I trust the team feel similarly inspired.