In Tottenham's first home game of the season, a team supposedly set up to press and play aggressive football ended up defending deep, giving the ball away cheaply and trying to hang on to a one-goal lead before West Bromwich Albion duly scored the equalizer that was always coming.
Spurs started off brightly for the first 20 minutes, looking good in the 4-2-3-1 shape, with the wide players advanced, the full-backs pushing up and Rafa van der Vaart, Tottenham’s most creative player, finding space.
Though dominant in the first half, there were few clear-cut chances and against a team that were happy to waste time early on, as the game wore on, the problem was going to be breaking them down, which called for more creativity from deep.
Sandro was energetic in the middle and Jake Livermore tidy, but in a home game where the opposition were clearly content with a draw, there was the opportunity for Andre Villas-Boas to deploy Van der Vaart from a deeper starting position during the second half, sacrificing Livermore and allowing Gylfi Sigurdsson to exploit the balls that were coming in from the flanks in the first-half.
As Van der Vaart showed in home games last season when Spurs were struggling to break down opposition, he can run the game from a deeper central starting position, as he did in second-half performances against West Brom and Everton at White Hart Lane in January.
His movement off the ball through the middle of the pitch was reminiscent of the role Jari Litmanen had at Ajax, difficult for the opposition to pick up, and making the team tick.
In a less-than-fluid performance from the team yesterday, it was exactly what was needed, without a sitting midfielder like Michael Carrick or Luka Modric dictating the pace of the game.
In this post-Modric era with Van der Vaart, Tottenham already have a former Real Madrid player who can control the tempo of games, with the vision and technique to execute a range of passing that matches his footballing intelligence and knack of picking of the right ball.
Instead of Van der Vaart being deployed deeper though, he was withdrawn for Emannuel Adebayor, with Defoe going to the left and Gareth Bale central. It gave Spurs a more physical presence in and around the penalty area, but there was still little creativity from the middle of the park.
Eventually, Villas-Boas did take of one of the two sitting midfielders, but it was Sandro rather than Livermore, and Sigurdsson playing deeper. The game had already opened up in the second-half period, but that was more a consequence of Spurs being poorer in possession rather than gaps left through the centre.
After the opening goal came from a deflected Benoit Assou-Ekotto half-volley, the coach brought Jermaine Jenas on to shore up the middle of the park, releasing Sigurdsson centrally and taking off Defoe. But as a team, Tottenham dropped off and invited trouble.
A new creative midfielder is expected, and needed, before the end of August is out, but leadership and experience are also important attributes in the middle of the park, and could have helped Spurs push out yesterday.
Van der Vaart has those qualities in abundance, as well as a touch and goal-scoring track record that has won the club games home and away in the last two seasons.
One of the main reasons for managerial change at Tottenham Hotspur in the summer was the need for a coach to get the most out of the squad he has. In Rafa van der Vaart, Andre Villas-Boas has inherited a proven match-winner. And to get the most out of him, he needs to be on the pitch.
Mel Gomes is the author of Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley where he documents his trip following Tottenham Hotspur home and away in their return to the European Cup after an absence of 49 seasons, the epic series of El Clasicos and a front-row seat at the Champions League Final.
It concludes with an Epilogue at the end of 2012 Season as Spurs found fourth wasn't good enough — Click here.
Mel Gomes is on Twitter - @melstarsg
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!