Saturday, September 1, 2012
AVB still searching for winning formula
Miguel Delaney, White Hart Lane
The season may have just started but, not for the first time, Tottenham have finished a game atrociously. That may be fitting, though, since they are a long way from the finished article.
As poor as this performance against Norwich was, everything Tottenham currently do must be put in the context of the Andre Villas-Boas era only beginning, with only two of his six new signings starting this match. That does not completely absolve him of blame, though.
Indeed, Villas-Boas's errors were emphasised by the fact that the pattern of Spurs' two home draws - in two eminently winnable fixtures - were identical: at 0-0, the manager brought on an extra forward to force the lead only to then withdraw one of them when eventually ahead to cede it.
But, as against West Brom, Norwich deserve credit for making the most of such missteps. Although they looked like a real soft touch on the opening day against Fulham, Chris Hughton has evidently fortified them with a lot more fight in the meantime. An otherwise poor game was notable for its occasionally aggressive edge.
That willingness to impose themselves ensured Norwich actually looked the likelier team to score in the first half, with Russell Martin hitting the crossbar from a free-kick and the eventual scorer, Robert Snodgrass, bringing a superb save from Brad Friedel. Such stops were to become one of the game's stock features.
There weren't just gaps in the Tottenham defence, though. That was generally the case right across their compromised system.
In many ways, this was highly reminiscent of Villas-Boas' games at Chelsea. An approach that was only partially imposed and only partially understood by the players available inevitably brought a performance that occasionally suggested something decent but always looked somewhat susceptible.
That, however, was always going to be the case given that the only new signings Villas-Boas got to use from the start were Jan Vertonghen and Gylfi Sigurdsson. Certainly, this was not a Villas-Boas midfield.
That became apparent very quickly as there were huge gaps between the central duo of Sandro and Jake Livermore and the rest of the attack. And, aside from the fact that Spurs generally struggled to maintain possession, they offered no incisive pass through the middle.
It was telling that the most intelligent ball they played in the first period came from Aaron Lennon, who was forced to cut in and spray the ball out for Sigurdsson. Typically, given that it was only Jermain Defoe in the box, the resultant cross caused no danger.
It seems, however, that Sigurdsson is also going to have to find a suitable role in this team. It was no surprise that he was eventually taken off. Nor was it a surprise that another substitution, the exciting Moussa Dembele, brought Spurs' single good spell of the game. Almost immediately, the new signing ensured they were playing nice interchanges at the edge of the box in the manner you would imagine Villas-Boas idealises.
In truth, it was also the only time in which Tottenham had a clear structure, a certain plan, a proper shape. Finally, it also put some shape on the scoreline. Collecting the ball on the edge of the box, Dembele shifted his weight, created a bit of space and fired precisely past John Ruddy. As Villas-Boas himself said: "Dembele came on, was a bit more forward thinking, gave more quality passes. He can be a massive help to us."
And that, really, should have been the story of the game: not quite a novel performance or the true start of a new era, but a decent platform thanks to one of the new signings. Then, however, some problems that are already old undid Spurs.
Villas-Boas withdrew Defoe but, with only substitute Emmanuel Adebayor up front, they didn't manage to retain possession in midfield.
Norwich picked their performance back up to the levels of the first half and pulled off an equaliser through their own new signing, Snodgrass.
Afterwards, Hughton praised the midfielder for the manner in which he has immediately adapted to the Premier League. Spurs, however, didn't adapt well to the new situation. Within four minutes of the equaliser, Tom Huddlestone went in on Jonny Howson. Referee Mark Halsey adjudged it to be overly aggressive. Huddlestone was dismissed and with him went Tottenham's chances of a win.
As it stands, despite their different statuses and expectations, both clubs now have only two points from their first three games. And, duly, that fact has slightly altered perceptions.
For one thing, it seems that Norwich are not perhaps going to be the sure thing to go down that they seemed on the opening day of the season.The Tottenham crowd, meanwhile, may not be quite as accepting of a transitional period as Villas-Boas expected - at least not if you go by the boos that greeted both the half-time and full-time whistles.
"You have to accept their disappointment," the Portuguese conceded. "It hasn't been the ideal start to the season. The fans have to understand we are doing everything to get the win they want."
That, of course, includes the overhaul Villas-Boas was never really allowed at Chelsea. And, until we get the see all of the new signings integrated into his system, it will remain somewhat unfair to judge the new Tottenham boss.
Some errors that aren't so readily explained away, though, have made that next job a little more difficult. Another dismal ending has resulted in a very disappointing start to the season.