Nine points, eight goals and fourth place. More than that, belief. The belief that comes only from winning. Beating the Whammers convincingly and brushing aside Fulham’s challenge on Saturday, a supposedly difficult place to go. Sandwiched in between, a contrast. A gutsy backs against the wall defensive display, we hold on where previous Tottenham teams would have crumbled. Andre Villas-Boas’ Spurs have made an emphatic statement of intent this week.
As the drama unfolds, three different characters fight to find their true role. One has become a star, another a supporting character, the third a bit-part player desperate to show he’s worth time in the spotlight.
Jermaine Defoe is benefitting not just from playing regularly but knowing he will play regularly. He strikes me as a player who wants to succeed as an individual and who wants to prove himself despite his achievements in the league and his international caps. He’s only truly happy when the team have won and he’s scored. Not a criticism – on the contrary, all great strikers are both hungry and selfish. It has meant that he’s tried too hard in the past to make an impression.
There’s a sense he’s still the little kid in the class, always needing to prove himself. The drive to over-compensate led in the last few seasons to a great showreel with goals pinging in from outside the box but we fans saw the out-takes too. Cannonballs high over the bar or into the bodies of defenders stood right in front of him, as if he hadn’t noticed them such was his desperation to score.
He wants to be wanted, don’t we all, and he knows now he is important at Spurs. Redknapp made him welcome and dutifully JD followed him around but as it turned out his so-called mentor wasn’t always there for him. Arm round the shoulder is good for the cameras but if you don’t play him, that’s what he really thinks of you. That hurts.
Consider this from Friday’s Guardian: JD asked, should I stay or should I go? Villas-Boas replied, stay but more than that, I want you, I want you to play.
“Away from football, as a person, he is a top guy, a really nice guy. After every session he will come into the changing room or treatment room and go to every player to see if you are OK. ‘How do you feel? How’s your legs?’ General chit chat. He will do it with every player, every day,” he explains. “Even when I was away with England he will send me a message sometimes – ‘Good luck. How’s the game?’ Stuff like that.”
People in all walks of life are motivated by all sorts of things, but what matters most is what those around you think. Andre, the Andre that we were told can’t handle players, knows that. And Defoe has repaid him. At 30 he’s finally matured. Confident in his own ability and place in the team, he’s letting his talent do the talking. He times the runs to perfection rather than keeping the linesman busy. Sharp and alert in the box, he moves easily into the channels and makes opportunities rather than waiting for them to happen. His finishing is smooth and controlled. I won’t go so far as to say he’s waiting patiently as he’s constantly moaning, deeply perplexed and affronted if the ball isn’t always played to him in the box. But there’s a different air about him under Villas-Boas.
On Saturday he had few chances, indeed few touches, but took two superbly, fully exploiting the gaps in the Fulham defence created by their need to respond to Sandro’s long-range effort that opened up the game.
Stars are nothing without a good script and supporting character actors to feed them the lines. Clint Dempsey joined Spurs in search of the limelight before his career came to a close. All afternoon his former fans reminded him he might have made a mistake and until recently, many Spurs supporters thought the same. More than many, Dempsey needs direction. He can make things happen but only once he’s been given the ball. He’s not lazy and works hard for the team but he’s at his best finding space, operating in the murky haze between the back four and midfield. To score or set one up – he can do both – he needs the ball. More than one or two touches and he’s lost. More than most, he has to know where his team-mates are and they know where he should be.
This week, three decent performances and two assists, both balls made to appear effortless in their precision, one for Bale, one for Defoe. He may yearn for the top billing he had at the Cottage but for the moment he must bide his time and settle for being settled. To be part of the team. It’s a good way to be and he’s learning fast.
So that leaves one misfit from the summer signings. Gylfi Sigurdsson has yet to hit his mark, often wandering aimlessly in the background in search of direction as he too takes his shot at the big time. On Saturday he came onto the stage as substitute and ran hard to across the pitch and up and down, defending from the front. Then, I don’t want to make too much of a single moment, he effortlessly set up Defoe with an economical, calm move in the box. Right place, looks easy but it’s not. A touch and a pass, looks easy but isn’t. He has stopped being invisible. We will need him in Bale’s absence.
And these players are playing, this team are playing, because their director is getting his message across. Afterwards Villas-Boas had the eager expectant look of a modest schoolboy at Prize Day. More challenges ahead, no doubt about it, but I hope he enjoyed his weekend. He deserves it.