The modern vogue for booing your own team is a strange one—something wholly alien to somebody brought up in the 1980s, when booing was reserved for displays of abject incompetence or gutlessness and almost invariably presaged the departure of the manager.
So the rumbles of Tottenham discontent during the 1-0 win over Hull City at White Hart Lane on Sunday have to be placed in context: It was enough to irritate Andre Villas-Boas, who complained about the atmosphere afterwards, but was far from a whole-scale revolt.
Still, there was frustration, which perhaps is understandable. Spurs stand fourth in the table, just three points behind the leaders Arsenal. They have the second-best defensive record in the league, having let in just five in nine league games. The worry, though, is the attack, which has scored only nine in those nine games. Only Hull in the top half of the table have scored fewer.
Tottenham’s shape on Sunday was a 4-3-3, although that doesn’t tell the full story. Roberto Soldado was the lone central striker, with Andros Townsend to his right and Aaron Lennon to the left, although Gylfi Sigurdsson has often played there this season.
What’s intriguing, though, is the midfield three. On the opening day of the season, away at Crystal Palace, Andre Villas-Boas fielded Paulinho, Mousa Dembele and Sigurdsson. For the next two games, at home to Swansea and away at Arsenal, Etienne Capoue came in for Sigurdsson. Tottenham won the first two of those games 1-0 and lost 1-0 at Arsenal.
In all three, the impression was of a physically robust side, the phalanx of midfield holders allowing the full-backs to get forward, but offering little in terms of midfield creativity or support for Soldado.
That issue of getting men forward in central areas was a problem also in the early part of last season, but seemed largely to have been solved by the acquisition of Dembele. He has either taken on a more reserved role this season to allow Paulinho to push on more, or it was less his influence than the superlative form of Gareth Bale that covered the shortfall.
Villas-Boas insisted that his 4-3-3 would remain the shape, which meant a lopsided triangle in the middle. Against Swansea and Arsenal, Capoue sat deep and slightly to the right, with Dembele slightly advanced of him to his left and Paulinho to the right of centre and the most advanced midfielder.
For the fourth game at home to Norwich, Capoue was injured, and Dembele and Paulinho took the deeper roles, with Christian Eriksen the most advanced of the three central midfielders.
He restored the spark, setting up two goals for Sigurdsson, but after the slightly freakish 3-0 defeat to West Ham, Villas-Boas seems to have opted for something more conservative. He brought in Lewis Holtby in place of Eriksen—who, it should be remembered, is only 21, is in his first season in the Premier League and probably needs protecting—with Sandro returning at the back of midfield after his injury layoff.
The result has been two clean sheets and successive victories, although the one against Hull was gained only thanks to an extremely generous penalty call.
Having reestablished that solidity, perhaps Villas-Boas can begin to loosen the reins again. Although his worry must be that, with Erik Lamela still finding his feet after his move from Roma, it seems to be only Eriksen who has the capacity to unlock an opposing defence.
Seven times after Christmas last season, Bale made a decisive goal-scoring contribution in the final quarter of a game; without him, Spurs must find a reliable way of converting possession into chances into goals, and that means offering more an attacking threat through central midfield.