Tottenham Hotspur 2 Aston Villa 1 – Did the real Spurs just stand up?
It was so bad that there were even stories of new manager Nuno Espirito Santo facing the sack just 10 games into his career, and reports of dressing room dissent quickly emerged. Even the 5-1 win in Europe over the Slovenian champions, which saw Harry Kane score his quickest hat-trick ever, did little to quell the despair. I mean, how could we concede a goal to a team whose average age is younger than a primary two kid, and why did we need our big guns to come in to secure a decent scoreline? It should have been a task easier than the PSLE Maths ribbons question.
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So very few Spurs fans and pundits alike were optimistic about Spurs facing an Aston Villa team that’s been on form, thrashing a very good Everton side and getting a famous victory at Old Trafford against a Ronaldo-led Manchester United side prior to visiting the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
And yet, not only did Spurs secure a very important three points, they did it with much aplomb. Yes, Villa wasn’t great on the day, but they were still organised and in spurts, posed a threat moving forward. But apart from Hugo Lloris needing to make one rather comfortable save from a well-crafted Danny Ings shot, he didn’t have much to do, even though there was a bit of desperate defending in front of him throughout the game.
Starting with a 4-2-3-1, a formation that everyone including the tea lady at Spurs have been asking Nuno to deploy, Spurs looked a lot more like the side that inflicted Manchester City their only loss of the season so far, and the team that ran Chelsea ragged for 45 minutes. With Tanguy Ndombele pushed further up into the number 10 role, and Son Heung-Min consistently tormenting the Villa backline with his off the ball running and magnificent work down the flanks, it would not have flattered Spurs if they had won this by a much bigger margin.
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What’s even more pleasing is that their first goal was nicely worked against an organised defence, with crisp passing finding Pierre Emile Hojbjerg on the edge of the box before the Danish midfielder coolly sidefoot the ball past a sprawling Emiliano Martinez, who had a really good game over the 90 minutes.
This goal was particularly joyful to watch because it showed that Spurs can break down a well organised defence, and was a departure from their usual counter-attacking style of football, which often depended on a defence to push higher up before Spurs could find any joy.
Sure, we reverted to Plan A (counter-attacking) again for Lucas Moura’s winning goal (nobody will convince me that it’s a Matt Targett own goal), but so what? A goal is a goal, no matter how it goes in.
But this performance raises so many questions. How could one week make so much of a difference? Where was this Spurs team at Arsenal last week? Could it really be as simple as dropping Dele Alli’s brother, as Nuno did in this match? Was this the real Spurs and will we see them again anytime soon?
No one really knows, and it’s just our usual Spurs luck that as the team is finding some rhythm, off they go to yet another international break.
Last week, I asked if Nuno would learn his lesson from the defeat to Arsenal, and on the evidence of this match, it would appear that he’s learned a little bit, though maybe not enough to pass PSLE maths still.
The change in tactical system was great, and it’s no coincidence that since his switch to 4-3-2-1 in the second half against Arsenal, Spurs have scored 8 goals in 2.5 matches, though five of that came against a team that would probably struggle to win the Singapore Premier League.
It’s clear that the system suits the players Spurs have, with both Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso much better players in the advanced number 10 position. Even Harry Kane, who had resembled an extra on The Walking Dead since his return (not the zombies who attack you, but those lying on the ground with half their heads blown off), suddenly looked like a player that Manchester City so coveted once again.
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He might not have scored, but that was down to good work from the Villa keeper in keeping out Kane in a one-on-one situation, as well as an audacious halfway line free-kick that almost reminded us of his magnificent goal against Juventus in Singapore two years ago. But he was involved throughout, the highlight of which was his exquisite backheel that fooled the entire Villa defence and found Lo Celso free on the left, only for the Argentinian’s shot to be well saved by Martinez yet again.
Does this Spurs team look like a top-four team again? Unfortunately, no, especially if one had watched the subsequent match between Liverpool and Manchester City, where both teams’ second half performance showed why they are the two best sides in English football. Chelsea are probably close to both Liverpool and City, which that leaves the fourth spot for Spurs to fight it out.
While one would think that Manchester United’s sudden loss of Premier League form leaves Spurs with a chance, you can never rule out the quality Cristiano Ronaldo has brought to the team. And of course, even though Eric Dier played well last night against Villa, you still have to question his vulnerability in losing his man when a ball comes in from the flanks, like how Ollie Watkins tapped in a cross to equalise for Villa by slipping in behind Dier.
Even with this performance, which was probably the most comprehensive attacking game Spurs had played against a quality opposition this season, you would be hard pressed to say that they can pip United to fourth. And then there’s the likes of Everton, West Ham and dare I say it, Brighton, all of whom have shown a lot of quality in their play so far this season. Even Wolves are finally getting the results that their play has deserved, and if they keep it up, would pose a threat to Spurs’ European ambition.
The point is, as good as Spurs were against a side that has a lot of quality, there are a lot of teams vying for the European slots, and to be able to do so, a team needs to be consistent for the rest of the season.
So, was the Spurs side last night the real Spurs? And if so, can they please stand up for the rest of the season? For me personally, I will only believe that if we can thump Newcastle in the next match, be as dominant last night in the match away at West Ham after that, and then take United to the cleaners when they return to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the end of October.
If that can happen, then I will join Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston in believing that yes, there can be miracles.