AVB’s Reign Begins. In Defeat, Some Positives

The better team, dominant indeed for extended periods. Friedel has a quiet afternoon. That superiority isn’t converted into goals. Sure we come close, hit the woodwork maybe, but all the flowing football means little if the chances aren’t taken. Time passes, we fade, our opponents take full advantage of rare but significant errors and we are punished, albeit with at least one excellent strike.

A cursory glance at that summary of yesterday’s game and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the new season but the same old Tottenham. Yet there was plenty to admire in a good performance characterised by movement, pace and possession, which augers well for the months to come. Cut out the sort of unforced errors that cost us dear and invest well in the market, then we have something to look forward to.

The speculation regarding our style under Villas-Boas became substance. This is what we know.

We know that as expected, AVB’s Spurs play an intense pressing game, hunting in clusters to restrict both time and space not just for any opponent on the ball but also for any team-mate he seeks to pass to. This left a weakness on the flanks, however.

That the famed and feared high line helps to compress the space still further when we do not have possession but it was not really in evidence too much. Newcastle never stranded our defenders.

That we’re offering a 4-2-3-1 with two predominantly defensive midfielders, Sandro and Livermore yesterday, and that frequently one of them drops into the back four at the earliest sign of attacking pressure. Bale, Sigurdsson and Lennon were the three further forward, swift and eager to support lone striker Defoe. Those runs from deep created opportunities because we had numbers forward far more swiftly than last season. Our totals of attempted and successful passes in the final third were very high, double that of Newcastle.

That whatever we call the formation, flexibility is the key. Lennon and Bale swapped wings, Sandro often went forward. So did Walker, who searches with masochistic relish for any opportunity to make a lung-busting 50 or 60 yard foray forward to turn defence into attack. Benny’s caution meanwhile was conspicuous by its contrast. That whatever the formation, possession is precious. That it’s tiring – we were noticeably less effective in the final quarter and that was not just about Newcastle’s improved second half performance. We cannot afford the luxury of going behind in games in the second half.

That Sigurdsson is an important player. In that central role, he put in both hard yards and clever touches, linking up with Defoe every chance he had. He’s been given license to shoot often. That he and Rafa may not be compatible in this line-up. Rafa has less energy, although he works much harder than many Spurs fans give him credit for, but he has the passing range to unlock defences. Several times we saw his long diagonals trying to pick out a man in the box, but this was not the way with our lack of power and strength up front.

That AVB is capable of surprises. Leaving Vertonghen on the bench in favour of Gallas was most unexpected. It could also signal the fact that we will not be after another central defender in the foreseeable future.

That AVB can clearly get his message through to his players. In a very short space of time they have become comfortable with the new system. It suits their skills and physical attributes, and there was an air of confidence from front to back.

That some of AVB’s decisions will frustrate and bewilder. Bale and Lennon were less effective after they swapped wings yet we persisted with that set-up for too long.

That we need a striker. But we knew that already.

Despite the defeat, there are genuine and lasting positives to take away with us. There’s plenty to show that the formation suits us, the players are motivated and we can play attacking football without forgoing the defensive fortitude often lacking last season that will serve us well in the long  haul between now and next May. At times the movement and pace stunned the Geordie defenders.

Having anther striking option would not necessarily have won this match,

Sandro Tweeted This Self-Portrait On Friday – “I miss play for my team.”

although it might well have done so, but it will win games in the future if we play like this. Defoe did well yesterday, using his brain rather than shooting on sight, or even when he can’t see anything but the centre half’s backside in front of him. He took up excellent positions, moving into the channels in tune with his team-mates. He certainly applied himself for the whole game even though he had some quiet patches where we did not find him. But we need more. We know that, AVB knows that and so does Daniel Levy. Expect business this week – maybe the defeat will hurry things along.

Last season we did not see the best of Newcastle against Spurs and for the first half that’s the way it carried on. Their back four was easily isolated as we made full use of the space in front of them. Siggy, Bale and Walker galloped into the gaps. Lennon had the beating of his full-back. Because we could pull the ball back into the space in front of their defensive line, the lack of an authentic centre forward wasn’t so apparent. Lennon set up Bale beautifully but he hit the bar, while earlier a  better choice of final ball could have produced a goal. JD hit the post after a brisk, flowing move, starting from deep.

Friedel had little to do despite the Geordie’s much vaunted striking duo and Krul was much the busier keeper. Sandro and Livermore were booked by the over fussy referee. Hearty congratulations to Jake for his England cap. He was too enthusiastic today – he must learn than you can press without tackling. Today his timing was off.

Newcastle were better organised in the second half and their resilience and team-work born from a season together proved its worth as the game went on. The same can’t said for their off-field organisation. With Pardew in the stands, his efforts to communicate with the bench turned to farce. We found out that the radio doesn’t work and no one in Newcastle has a mobile so the coaching staff waited patiently in line to take messages downstairs like Roman centruions along Hadrian’s Wall.

In the end, despite our overall superiority, one mistake and one example of being taken for mugs won the match. Walker’s poor header was picked up by a proper striker, who did nothing throughout except turn and plant his one opportunity firmly in the far corner. That’s what proper strikers do, after all.

Defoe and Spurs deserved the equaliser. After our incisive, clean play, this was a messy one, with first Defoe’s header then his follow up hitting defenders, the keeper and the post before going in. The shame was, we couldn’t hang on. We gifted Newscastle  penalty winner. We were tiring and they had used the space we left on the wings well, something AVB will have to address, but Ben Arfa played us for mugs, darting for a gap between VDV and Lennon. We fell for it and he toppled, a clear but avoidable penalty. A disappointing end when we deserved more from the game but there’s plenty of good things to take away. I’ve predicted a stuttering start then improvement in the longer run. Let’s hope that ‘it’s a long season’ gives us something to anticipated rather than dread.