Walker, AVB get it right vs. Sunderland
The relief at the final whistle was unmistakeable. Andre Villas-Boas smiled and pumped his fists while the players grinned and hugged. After the 6-0 humiliation at the Etihad, the pressure was finally off.
On reflection, Spurs might now regret that they weren't a little bolder in going for the win against a below-par Manchester United last weekend, but seven points out of a possible nine is a strong comeback. It's time for David Moyes and Jose Mourinho to feel some media heat instead.
Before Saturday's Sunderland game at the Stadium of Light, Spurs would have settled for a win at all costs. Even a repeat of the rather fortuitous comeback against Fulham at Craven Cottage if necessary. And it rather looked like that's precisely what was in store after Hugo Lloris gifted Sunderland their opener. Spurs had been tentative and staccato in possession and every shot on goal had come from outside the area. The equaliser just before half-time was as welcome as it was unexpected.
And then the sun came out. Or something very like it. Who knows what AVB said to his team at half-time? Or what Gustavo Poyet said to his? But in the second half, Spurs started playing the way everyone had been hoping it would. Spurs have had long periods of possession and dominance in previous games without ever mounting a serious threat. On Saturday, the passing in the midfield became quick and incisive and the forwards couldn't stop creating chances inside the box. Jermain Defoe might have had four goals while Paulinho could have had a hat-trick. Let's just hope they were both a little rusty after seeing so little of the ball so near goal and that they will punish more testing opponents.
But if the main excitement was up front, the best surprises were to be found at the back. The back four of Kyle Walker, Etienne Capoue, Michael Dawson and Kyle Naughton turned out to be an inspired team selection. Naughton put in his best shift yet at left back; so comfortable was he that Nacer Chadli -- who had presumably been picked primarily for his ability to give Naughton defensive support -- was able to stray further forward and give the attack an aerial threat.
Dawson was just Dawson: reliable and committed in the cause, but just a bit too slow. The two revelations were Capoue and Walker. Capoue had played a few times in defence for his former club Toulouse but he was brought to Spurs as a midfielder. He and AVB might have to rethink this. Against Fulham in midfield three days earlier, Capoue had been so poor he was taken off at half-time. At the Stadium of Light, he didn't put a foot wrong and looked to the manor born. Given that his confidence can't have been high coming in to the game and he was being asked to play out of position, Capouse revealed as much about his mental strength as his technical abilities.
The player of the day, however, was Walker. There have been many -- not least me -- who had begun to doubt if Walker would ever be able to convert his raw talent into consistent performance and make the step up from promising youngster to the real deal. Saturday's game suggested he might. His pace and threat in attack have never been in doubt; the questions have always been about his defensive positioning and his speed of thought. Against Sunderland he was dominant both going forward and at the back. He contained the considerable strength and guile of Jozy Altidore with ease; by the end, the American had all but given up.
Now, Spurs effectively have a week off to recover. Thursday's Europa League game against Anzhi Makhachkala is totally meaningless. Spurs have already qualified, top of their group, so AVB would do well to put out a third-choice team. Remember the home game against Tromso when Danny Rose picked up a seemingly innocuous knock? Spurs can't afford something similar to happen. Whether through injury, luck or sheer hard work, AVB's team appears to have turned a corner and nothing should be done to jeopardise that.
Spurs will need to be at their best against Liverpool. But if the defence can contain Luis Suarez, then the midfield and the attack might just be able to take advantage.
After a rocky period, Spurs have shown promising signs of being back on track. Bring on Liverpool. And bring on Arsenal in the FA Cup.