Given the opportunity to sleep in on a cloudy San Francisco morning, I instead chose to watch the Spurs attempt a rebound off a horrid loss to West Ham and an all-too-long international break. Although I moved from the bed to the couch and grabbed a cup of coffee, the first 30 minutes of the Aston Villa match put me straight back to sleep.
Moving in and out of consciousness, I caught glimpses of Villa congesting the middle of the pitch and had visions of Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches passing the ball back-and-forth for what must have been 10 minutes. What a nightmare. Simply dreadful.
Then something beautiful happened: the Spurs finally built an attack, the Villa lines wavered, and an Andros Townsend cross found the inside of the net! Finally, a reason to stay awake and pay attention long enough to gather three important takeaways: the “first” goals, the stout defense, and questionable attacking combinations.
1) The Goals
In his twelfth league appearance for Spurs, Townsend collected the ball on the right, shifted it to his left, and lofted and dipped the ball past a frozen Brad Guzan. After four years on the senior team and nine loans throughout League One, Championship and Premier leagues, Townsend finally tallied for Tottenham during league competition. So why was his celebration so subdued?
For one, Townsend’s perfectly placed ball was actually an inswinger destined for one of the advancing Roberto Soldado, Paulinho, or Lewis Holtby. Out of the reach of Soldado running toward the near post and Paulinho charging forward on the far side, Holtby had the best opportunity to get his head on Townsend’s pass, but he astutely dummied the keeper and let the ball breeze over his back and bounce into the goal. It was a dangerous ball and a great team play, but probably not how Townsend expected to break through.
The second half brought about another first for Spurs: after scoring penalties in each of their first two matches, Soldado netted his first goal in open play. Starting from Soldado’s steal of a hapless Villa defender, he fed Holtby for a short run down the left side. The German international pinpointed Paulinho just outside the area, Soldado took the Brazilian’s one-time pass, and he adeptly slipped it passed the sprawling keeper.
As Soldado glided deftly into the box, I raised my arms and practically jumped through the ceiling when he found net. A lovely piece of movement and ball control, all Spurs fans hope Soldado’s score will boost his confidence and start an avalanche of goals.
2) The Defense
All Spurs fans know there is a HUGE problem in the midfield. There is so much quality and talent, there just aren’t enough league minutes for everyone to spend enough time on the field. Indeed, it is a good problem to have, but decisions need to be made and I appreciate AVB’s moves to bolster the team’s defense through the midfield.
Everyone enjoys Mousa Dembele’s effortless ball control and precision passing, but I was ecstatic to find Sandro in the starting XI on Sunday. Spurs are just better with Sandro. He allows Paulinho – or Dembele if they happen to be paired – to get forward and he puts the hurt on attacking midfielders. Sandro is the spine the Spurs were lacking during the second half of 2012-13 and he brings that stable presence necessary for a successful run this season.
And while Townsend has received plaudits for his “marauding runs” and his future as “the next Gareth Bale,” little notice has been given to his positive impact on the defense and more specifically, Kyle Walker. During 2012-13, we were treated by Walker’s long runs from right back and equally horrified when he promptly kicked the ball out of White Hart Lane and into the quaint front yards on Park Lane. Or worse, Walker gave up the ball after running the length of the field and the counter-attack left Lennon falling back to defend. Not exactly how AVB drew it up.
Fast forward to 2013-14 and fans have been introduced to a more subtle version of Walker. No less speedy or dangerous, he’s replaced some of those ill-advised runs with midfield hovering and defensive support. I attribute this shift to a likely “meeting of the minds” with AVB in the offseason, but most importantly to Townsend’s mere presence on the right wing. His pace has kept opponents on their heels, but his willingness to shoot from distance and fire in crosses from the end-line has freed Walker to fully contain attackers slipping down Spurs’ right flank.
Without a doubt Walker’s improved positioning has stiffened the defense and helped lead Spurs to 10 clean sheets in their first 13 competitions. Although Townsend’s offensive skills have received the bulk of the fanfare, his contributions to the defensive shape should not be understated.
3) The Attacking Combinations
Among the myriad options in the midfield, Spurs have the benefit of two true #10’s: Holtby and Christian Eriksen. Eriksen impressed early and often this season and relegated Holtby to Europa duty. This paired him with Jermaine Defoe who had also been displaced from league play by another newcomer, Soldado. The Holtby-Defoe pairing has shone bright though, starring versus Tromso and Anzhi Makhachkala with creative link-ups.
On the heels of those successes, Defoe was given the opportunity to start against West Ham with mixed results. However, Holtby had to wait until the 81′ – after the three fateful goals had already been scored – to make an appearance. Conversely, Holtby got the start versus Villa, and Defoe sat the bench until the 87′. Why aren’t both Holtby and Defoe starting in league together?
Although Eriksen is first-team talent and a joy to watch, Holtby has been thoroughly outplaying him and has earned each of his starts. His play and his connection with Defoe demands an opportunity for the two of them to match up together against Hull City next Sunday. AVB has shown a reluctance to displace both Eriksen and Soldado, but it might be worth a shot while Defoe is still in form.
Now, let’s hope the Spurs’ form against Villa carries on. Come On You Spurs!
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