Less than seven months ago, Tottenham Hotspur went to Chelsea in the Premier League and dominated the game, creating countless chances that either produced good saves, hit the frame of the goal or failed to be buried.
Since then, Chelsea’s success in the Champions League, coupled alongside a seemingly bottomless budget, has attracted the creative talents of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marco Marin, the first two of whom played alongside Juan Mata in attacking visiting midfield yesterday.
Those signings have transformed a team that lacked incisiveness earlier in the year into one that always looks likely to score at White Hart Lane.
In contrast, Spurs have let Rafa van der Vaart go, and while he has been regularly getting either assists or goals for his club and country this term, Tottenham have struggled to find any pattern of play, other than a worrying tendency to invite pressure from the opposition after taking the lead in matches.
Goals change games, and Tottenham’s equalizer from a set piece at the start of the second half yesterday changed the balance of the match, if only for nine minutes. It lifted both the crowd and the players, who suddenly camped themselves in the Chelsea half and played an up-tempo game that led to a second goal by the excellent Jermain Defoe.
Defoe was Tottenham’s best player yesterday, working tirelessly despite little service. He has been in fine form since finding the net for England in August before the EPL started, and as his confidence has returned, so has his movement off the ball, as best showed at Old Trafford three weeks ago.
Tottenham had their best half of football this season that day against Manchester United—arguably their only consistently good half of football under Andre Villas-Boas—as Defoe was supported by Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale in what was effectively a front three, with all of them using the space to move across the pitch in the opposition half while the rest of the team were composed to progress as a unit when they had the ball.
Yesterday, though, the team as a whole were less assured in possession, with Gylfi Sigurdsson on a different wavelength to Jan Vertonghen after he moved to the left of a four-man midfield, and Clint Dempsey looking lost in a no-man’s land in the hole of a 4-4-1-1.
Even less effective was Dempsey’s replacement, Emannual Adebayor, whose poor first touch continues to defy belief and whose lack of energy meant there was no impetus to what should have been an attacking substation on paper.
Much of Villa-Boas’s team selections and changes during games so far in his short time at Tottenham have been defensive, including the decision to pair Jake Livermore and Sandro together at home against West Bromwich Albion andthe deliberate tactic of not leaving any player on the halfway line when defending corners.
His first substitution yesterday was also negative. As Spurs were still leading, Villa-Boas planned to replace Tom Huddlestone with Livermore. There was still over a quarter of the game left, but Spurs were already dropping deeper, just as they had at home to Norwich and West Brom and away at Manchester United.
The change went ahead, even though Chelsea equalized before it was made, meaning a midfield that was poor in possession, with Sandro particularly profligate, became even less creative. Spurs had plenty of shots during the course of the game, but they were mainly from outside the box, and mostly straight at Cech when on target.
Only Lennon’s driving runs promised to be fruitful, as once again Spurs looked to get inspiration from individual moments of brilliance, as they have done from Defoe at Reading to Vertongen at home to QPR, rather than dominate a game as they did at Stamford Bridge a few months ago, despite being in a poor run of form.
The two early second-half goals raised the blood levels and noise in White Hart Lane yesterday, but the nine minutes disguised the fact that no fluidity has yet been established this season.
Tottenham missed Scott Parker, Gareth Bale and Moussa Dembele yesterday and made some good signings in the summer, but the team needs to return to controlling play and taking games by the scruff of the neck when in the lead.
Mel Gomes is the author of Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley, his journey following Tottenham Hotspur home and away in their return to the European Cup after an absence of 49 seasons. It includes tales of Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, a North London Derby comeback, famous wins against both Milanese clubs, and concludes with an epilogue in May 2012.
Mel Gomes is also on Twitter.