The criticism most often levelled at Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas is his lack of flexibility. He sticks rigidly to his ideas, tactics and formations come what may, so the stroy goes. At this point his more snide detractors add something about clipboards and never having played professional football.
I’ve never fully bought that. Tottenham have tried different formations, although always with a back four, and the permutations have seldom included the classic 4-3-3 that was supposed to be his trademark. He persists with certain players but then again being accused of giving players a chance to prove themselves over a run of games is laudable. When he chops and changes, he gets it in the neck too.
However, his capacity to change will never be tested under as much pressure as over the coming month. How he responds in the nine games of December will define not only this season but the longer-term future of the club. Spurs are slipping down the table, we can’t score and sections of the media will pounce like starving hawks on the slightest sign of weakness. And in our last league match, we were slaughtered.
Early signs are positive. From first to last the team’s attitude was exemplary. They all played for each other and, as ‘we’ is an inclusive pronoun, presumably for the manager too. After the City debacle, what I feared most was a slump in morale but the opposite was the case, with a fighting determination to do the right thing that will see us through if it continues. For long periods we were the better side and imposed our pattern on the game rather than reacting to United. We made the chances too, but missed them when it mattered.
In the end, a deserved point, a pearler from Sandro and the optimism that it could have been more. The result was less important than the performance. This was never the ‘must win’ game that many named it because we have a lousy record against United. This fixture has meant nothing but frustrated hopes and soggy disappointment for a decade or more, so three points are an aspiration rather than a benchmark.
AVB changed the team too, with Lennon on the right and Chiriches at the back alongside Dawson, who looked the most vulnerable of the defenders after last week but I doubt Kaboul is fully fit, or indeed if he will ever be again. The inclusion of Chadli was the most surprising. We’ve seen a bit of him looking ripped and hanging around on the left but little else. He started at Palace and now he’s back after injury so safe to say his manager rates him.
However, some things don’t change. The way the team was given to me, I assumed Dembele was playing further forward – regular readers will know I firmly believe his considerable talents are wasted as a DM. In fact, it was just a random order of the midfielders so there he was, with Paulinho pushed up into an unfamiliar advanced role as the link between striker and the rest of the midfield.
After the early skirmishes Spurs took the game to United. With Paulinho in that advanced role we were better able to press high up the pitch. Dembele got stuck in too and the United midfield never had time to settle, looking dangerous only when the excellent Rooney got on the ball or when Valencia powered towards Vertonghen. The Brazilian enjoyed his work near the box without ever appearing entirely comfortable. He was part of the best move of the game, returning Soldado’s first time ball with a pass of his own that sliced through the defence to give the Spaniard a precious chance deep inside the box. As we’re on the subject of defining moments, as he took aim and without hesitation hit a first time shot, you knew this embryonic goal of the month could resurrect his reputation, silence the doubters and send his flagging confidence sky-high. But into the crowd and the moment had gone.
Still, he played well, encouraged by his manager to adapt to the English game by increasing his movement and work rate. As a result he got on the ball more and played an instrumental role in fashioning our other great chance. Lennon’s shot was saved and from the rebound his perfect cross to the far post found Paulinho hanging back when he stood have been idling near the goal-line for a tap-in.
Paulinho made our opener, Walker slamming home a direct free kick after the Brazilian was fouled at the edge of the box. I like to think we had scouted the fact that the United wall jumps as the kick is taken and that’s why it was a low ball straight at, then through, the wall, rather than a slightly scuffed effort. Positive, that’ the approach…
Walker has been playing better recently. If only he could concentrate for 90 minutes. He seemed surprised a cross came to him and sliced his clearance straight to a grateful Rooney. He put everything into this game and I feel for him even though his howler put United on level terms and back into a match that was at that point slipping out of their grasp. His positioning and body-shape were a tiny bit off and that’s all that is needed for a mistake.
However, that cross would not have come if Dembele had not lost the ball in midfield. His good game was spoilt by repeating this error on several occasions, each time it gave the impetus back to United.
Lennon was outstanding in the first half. Townsend essentially gives us a single angle of attack – Lenny gives us several, going outside like a proper winger or whizzing directly into box in a series of dangerous diagonals. Pleasure to see him do so well.
Walker’s error took the wind from our sails and we were becalmed until half time. We picked up again after the break, then we were lifted by the gale-force blast from Sandro’s right foot, a classic top-right-corner-keeper-rooted-to-the-spot from 25 yards.
And now – an official TOMM apology to referee Mike Dean. When Lloris dived at Welbeck’s feet, I was convinced he reached the ball first. I, like many in the stands. were frankly uncomplimentary about his powers of decision-taking. But I was wrong. Welbeck made the most of it as is the modern way but there’s no defence if the keeper doesn’t touch it. Penalty, and United had both the goal and renewed momentum.
So the lead lasted only three minutes. Mind you, I really enjoyed those 180 seconds, among the best of the year so far, but hey ho.
Spurs performance never recovered but we were steady enough to see it thorugh for a point. The ball shot across our box a couple of times but otherwise we did not look like losing this one. I can’t recall Lloris making a diving save.
Trouble is, perhaps we could and should have done more to win it, and back we come to Villas-Boas’ inflexibility. Both his subs – Defoe Soldado, Townsend for Lennon – were like for like, thus United did not have to confront anything new and uncomfortable. Later that afternoon, his fallen mentor Jose Mourinho turned deficit into victory with his substitutions. Perhaps AVB was legitimately cautious after last week but there were opportunities to change things around with Paulinho remaining on the pitch to the end despite a fading contribution.
Sandro had a good game, dropping back into the back four when necessary to shore up the defence. Dawson tackled and blocked, while Chiriches looks accomplished with timing in the tackle, dare I say it, reminiscent of our dear Ledley. My imagination or did we defend deeper for the most part? I wonder if AVB wants to dump the high line. Interesting to see if that is permanent.
AVB has certainly changed his tactics when it comes to sections of the media, firstly tucking into Alan Sugar’s bid to install Alex Ferguson as his replacement then going on the offensive with journalists like Neil Ashton who interpreted his use of the word ‘we’ in the analysis of the City defeat as meaning that he blamed the players, not himself. Taking on the media is a dangerous game but good luck to him on this occasion at least. It’s a fine line between appropriate assertiveness and outrageous paranoia (see Mourinho, J. and Wenger, A.) but this was the right time to take a stand. More on this later in the week but we think the boy done good.