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Sep 21, 2012

Flat Spurs continue to frustrate

The Europa League is taking its time to capture English enthusiasm. Throughout this Thursday evening it was Roman voices filling the north London air, not local ones. Rightly esteemed for its atmosphere, White Hart Lane was disappointingly flat.

Some Lazio fans' vociferousness spilled over into something more sinister, with Jermain Defoe in particular the subject of abhorrent monkey chants by a not-insignificant number amongst the visiting support. If the England striker was shaken by the events, he hid it admirably, continuing his industrious efforts of the early season.

It brought an abrupt and unwelcome end to what had initially been a far more convivial buzz around N17, with the two sets of fans exchanging Paul Gascoigne chants to mutual applause during the first half. The bond created between the clubs by fond memories of England's most celebrated player of modern times was unavoidable.

Even the match programme eschewed the rather sober tone synonymous with most of its peers to bring colour to the story. One club journalist reminisced on the highlights of life with Gazza - stray cutlery hidden in sandwich fillings, stolen dictaphones and gentle dust-ups in the training ground car park. In its pages, Bill Nicholson's handwritten scouting report on Gascoigne (misspelt 'Gascoyne') for December 1987 was reproduced. "He seldom stands and watches," wrote the Spurs legend. "In fact, he always wants the ball, but he is a bit indisciplined and often goes where he pleases."

How we could have done with some of the Geordie's dazzle here, on a night where it felt like autumn was rapidly drawing in. Mousa Dembele is the closest Tottenham have for now, with the recently arrived midfielder already prepared to take responsibility for making things happen. Bossing central midfield, he is a far cry from the lithe winger who burst into our consciousness with AZ and subsequently attracted Real Madrid's attention. He is muscly and forthright, retaining the change of pace that served him well out wide but ready to press and dispossess, and happy to drop into a sitting position when Sandro bursts forward.

Andre Villas-Boas has a reputation as part of a nouvelle vague, an image underlined by his predecessor Harry Redknapp's recent mocking of a new generation of coaching technocrats, but the idea of a central midfield pair taking it in turns to go forward and stay at home is a reassuringly old-fashioned aspect of his tactical credo. An oft-overlooked aspect of the Portuguese's style is that he encourages self-expression, not just slavish obedience.

A good example is Sandro. ESPN's Michael Cox recently pointed out the Brazilian is bringing the ball forward and starting attacks more; much like the fashion in which Vilas-Boas' dedicated defensive midfielder at Porto, Fernando, was encouraged to do during his spell at the Dragao. The confidence seeped out of Sandro as he sprang forward in Tottenham's zesty opening against Lazio, something that it is hard to imagine being permitted under Redknapp.

Of course, the transition takes time. As well as needing a formidable standard of fitness, the Villas-Boas way requires genuine emotional investment from the players, and a willingness to totally assimilate into a collective, in terms of movement, aims and attitude. That's what created not just great success, but a phenomenal spirit at Porto.

At present, some fine-tuning to the same frequency is required. The signs are promising; Spurs move with purpose, but are carrying a few passengers at present, which means their game is gently persuasive rather than irresistible. On his full debut, Clint Dempsey was one such out of sync, struggling to adjust to such a rampant rhythm, misplacing passes, wandering out of position and seemingly unsure of his function.

One can't be too hard on the USA international, who is short of the rhythm of regular football after injury and intrigue over his future in his final weeks at Fulham. It is clear he will be a formidable presence in the opposition penalty box, as shown by the second-half header which was a potential debut goal, ruled out for offside.

Unfortunately by that point it looked as if Spurs' best chance of a goal was from a whipped Gareth Bale set piece. The decision to disallow Steven Caulker's own header for a push (the last of three chalked-off efforts) seemed harsh, but it would have glossed over Tottenham's current struggle to penetrate, which is becoming a worrying pattern at White Hart Lane.

The indefatigable Defoe clearly needs assistance, but to complement Dembele, Spurs are crying out for the considered craft of a Joao Moutinho - or a Luka Modric, come to think of it, an image sharpened by Jose Mourinho's initial deployments of the Croatian in a more advanced attacking role that he was accustomed to in his latter months in London.

At the other end, it will not surprise seasoned AVB watchers that the defence could do with a little organisational work. Miroslav Klose's uncharacteristic air shot just after the half-hour was a let-off and when Alvaro Gonzalez had time to hammer a shot off the crossbar, it looked as if Tottenham were rocking. Yet the back four are pretty much doing what the boss wants already; energetically ushering the team forward, in which recent signing Jan Vertonghen is very useful, and acting as a conduit for the collective tempo. Hugo Lloris had a quiet debut in goal, but his tidy distribution fits into the plan. The much-discussed high line has been tempered but it was never a death wish – just an attempt to maintain a natural rhythm as, say, Barcelona's defence do, albeit in a different way.

Unfortunately, improving in public is occasionally a painful spectacle, and Villas-Boas is not one to flinch too much from reality. Unlike some Premier League colleagues' Europa League efforts, this was a fair representation of where Spurs are at. Villas-Boas respects the competition and is likely to continue to employ only light rotation.

The coach's shrill whistling was frequently heard over the hush across the pitch. One trio of calls at his players as time ran out sounded like the phantom full-time whistles you sometimes hear from the crowd. On this night of attrition against sturdy opponents, if the manager had been beckoning the referee to call it a day as soon as possible, few would have blamed him.

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