A tale of two keepers at White Hart Lane
LONDON -- On any other day, Andre Villas-Boas could have been happily reflecting on an uplifting rout of Newcastle. Tottenham Hotspur were that dominant, that profligate. As it was, this was another afternoon that contributed to their deflating scoring record.
Tim Krul was that defiant, that utterly sensational.
Villas-Boas' side have now hit just nine goals in 11 Premier League games this season and only six from open play -- yet this was a match in which virtually none of the reasons for that negative were revealed and they could have scored four or five.
It is something of a contradiction that summed up this game of contrasts, with the most obvious one at the opposite ends of the pitch.
This was a game ultimately decided by the two goalkeepers, which was somewhat ironic given that the build-up was also defined by controversy surrounding Tottenham's No. 1.
In one goal, Villas-Boas' necessary replacement of the injured Hugo Lloris with Brad Friedel meant that Tottenham could not initially play their high defensive line with the same ease or comfort. That further conditioned a greater hesitancy in attack, as if Spurs were afraid to fully push forward with abandon. It was all the more frustrating for them because, unlike so many sides that have come to White Hart Lane lately and shut games down, Newcastle were initially willing to open it and finally afford Spurs' new attack the space to express themselves. So, for all the greater freedom, Tottenham had to rein themselves in.
Instead, Newcastle's bravery was rewarded as they sought to take advantage of an increased reticence in the reshaped home backline.
It was conspicuous that, in the first 13 minutes, both Yohan Cabaye and Yoan Gouffran attempted to thread testing slide-rule passes through that newly uncertain area between the defence and goalkeeper. From the second, Loic Remy expertly rounded Friedel to score the game's only goal.
Villas-Boas became somewhat agitated when the specific issue was raised, not least after a host of questions about Lloris' fitness, but did admit his side's first-half performance was "very poor."
"Our disappointment comes from that," the Tottenham manager said. "The positive part was that we reacted so well."
That was undeniably the case. Seemingly emboldened by the situation and the urgency to score, Spurs abandoned their first-half tentativeness and tore at Newcastle.
The problem was the one trend that lasted from the first half into the second: the away goalkeeper's brilliance.
"Tim Krul was the key to the game," Villas-Boas said. "He made the difference."
Having saved superbly from a Paulinho long shot and then -- most remarkably -- an inventive Roberto Soldado back-header in the opening period, the Dutch keeper then somehow lifted his game even higher in the second half by so frequently lifting the ball away.
It wasn't just the quality of the saves, but the rate and improbability of them.
On 49 minutes, with Christian Eriksen closing in on goal, Krul forced away the effort with his feet. On 52, with a deflected free kick surely sending the ball past him, the keeper somehow adjusted his body to make a supreme double save -- if admittedly with a little help from Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa as Younes Kaboul closed in.
"This is a highlight of my career," Krul reflected afterwards.
There was certainly plenty for the highlight reel.
This was the most entertaining game to have taken place at White Hart Lane this season, as well as probably Tottenham's finest attacking display since the 2-0 win over Norwich -- yet it was another game in which they failed to score.
A sense of deflation was reflected by the boos at the end, but that dissent also indicated that Villas-Boas cannot completely point to Krul's class.
The fixture still hinted at a few of the previous and potentially lasting issues in Spurs' front line. For all they expanded their game in the greater space initially offered by Newcastle, there were moments when a lack of economy was illustrated.
Soldado, most alarmingly, couldn't even force one of those supreme saves from Krul when presented with an eminently scorable chance just yards from goal. His slackness was in contrast to the slickness of Remy, whose running always seemed capable of just opening the entire game up in an instant.
Given Villas-Boas' clear agitation after the game, it wouldn't have been the best time to bring up the fact that Tottenham were initially interested in the French forward this summer. Remy's style of running is almost exactly what they miss.
Occasionally, it is almost as if there is just too much careful craft in Spurs' attack. Rather than seizing an opening, a few too many players will set a pass back up. A little like Dimitar Berbatov when at Manchester United, Soldado seems to occasionally slow the game down, just when Villas-Boas' side arguably need more vigour.
It is possibly one of the reasons that Andros Townsend's form has been so pronounced. Although he is seemingly on a one-man mission to disprove Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours" rule with a return of 42 shots this season and one goal, there can be little disputing that his willingness to suddenly burst at a defence changes the tone and pace of a game. It is something his team otherwise lack.
Spurs' front players will jell and improve their integration as the season goes on, but at the moment it seems they could do with a greater variety in their play.
Here, the variety came from the range of Krul's sensational saves. It was notable that the home side's goalkeeping coach, Tony Parkes, congratulated him afterwards, out of respect for a 10-out-of-10 performance.
Those smiles weren't evident later. Newcastle continued a ban on local journalists asking questions because of unfavourable coverage of the club's owner; Villas-Boas got prickly about the amount of probing of his Lloris decision.
The French goalkeeper was sat on the bench after his concussion at Everton last week.
Villas-Boas said that, although Lloris would likely have played had the game been on Monday rather than Sunday - and was still possibly ready for this one -- his medical staff conducted an "impact test" and insisted it was best not to start the No. 1. When the Tottenham manager was asked what that was, his response was "you can Google it."
As much as Spurs searched, they couldn't find a way past Krul.