Ironic that as the minute’s applause in celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela had barely died away, the Barclays adverts flickered around the pitch perimeter. Not so long ago, or so it seems to me, we boycotted Barclays because of its persistent links with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Cashpoints were picketed, and we didn’t buy their apples. The ANC probably did more to bring down the government but it felt as though we were part of the struggle. Many still feel a deep connection with a man whose principled, single-minded compassion created fundamental political and social change, an example to all yet sadly highly unlikely to ever be repeated in contemporary politics.
Plenty of time to watch the ads in the early stages as Spurs versus Sunderland took a while to get going. Perhaps I am in sync with the team, understandable after all these years I suppose. This is the pattern lately, a slow start then build up a head of steam as time passes. I know my knowledge of male grooming products began and ended with Old Spice and Brylcreem but a skin product named Nip-Man – that’s a joke, right? And sorry to disappoint relatives and friends but you can forget the Stubhub gift certificate for this and any other Christmas. This blog does not wish its readers a Merry Tixmas. Tixmas for goodness sake.
Christmas is a time for tradition and Spurs have created one of their own in time for the festive season, the defensive cock-up. After a sedate first half-hour where our new centre back partnership of Capoue and Dawson looked unsettled without Sandro’s protection in front of them, Lloris’s horrible error put us one down but shook us out of our stupor. His feeble punch went straight to Johnson who scored easily.
From then on, we dominated the match. As at Fulham in the week, we should aim to impose ourselves on teams from the start. We haven’t got the defence to absorb relentless attacks and in this opening period we looked lousy on the break, wilfully moving the ball slowly even when we had time and space.
Having the ability to pull ourselves back from a deficit is laudable. Personally I would prefer if we didn’t make a hash of it in the first place, much more sensible. Recent victories should not obscure this fact. Never mind all the talk about tactics, formations and the merits of AVB’s managerial style, we make too many basic and costly mistakes at the back. Our early season parsimony was not due to mighty defence but our relative lack of errors.
It helps to get back quickly. After Defoe missed one opportunity and Chadli headed straight at the keeper from a corner, the value of the latter’s height and power in the box was shown to full effect. A long cross seemed to be predictably drifting wide but Chadli nodded it back and Paulinho was more alert to the loose ball. I had given it up but he didn’t, and touched home from close in. The Brazilian’s starting position was deeper yesterday, alongside Dembele as DMs, and for me he looked all the better for it.
We came out after the break with a welcome eagerness, dominating the next twenty minutes where the game was won. AVB confounded his detractors by making two significant tactical changes. The high line was notable by its welcome absence again. AVB and I still shudder at the sight of Daws stranded on the halfway line against City. Also, a right-footed winger on the right. Lennon was outstanding, and when Townsend came on as sub to play wide left, he too looked so much more comfortable.
Holtby has a painter’s eye for the angled pass and on 65 minutes with a single devastating brushstroke intended to complete this canvas. The ball sliced through the entire defence, ending at Defoe’s feet deep inside the box as he skipped across the line and free of his markers but his judgement was less certain. His diagonal beat the keeper but slid wide of the far post. It was a frustrating miss, not only because it created 15-odd minutes of palpitating anxiety whenever Sunderland hacked the ball upfield but also because a goal would have demonstrated that finally, we really could make and take a chance inside the area.
There were other opportunities for proof, mostly from players, Lennon and Walker notably, getting to the byline and crossing. I’ll just repeat that for newish supporters or those with merely normal memories: getting to the byline and crossing.
Defoe hit the post twice, coming across the defender to the near post, the classic striker’s move. One header on the right, one deft flick on the left, both were reactions, both were unlucky. These and others - Holtby’s blocked shot, Paulinho’s header – from providers cutting close to the byline. If only they had done that for me, sighed Bobby Soldier, sinking deeper inside his padded coat on the bench.
All these chances yet the winner was pure good fortune. Dembele charging forward on the left and his cross/shot hit O’Shea and into the net. An own goal but one made because we attacked from dangerous angles. It shows again the value of the Moose upfield – let it go, Al, just let it go – but overall he had a strong match before he went off holding his hip.
One of my suggestions to heal our Andre’s self-inflicted wounds was to return to a few things that worked last season. Yesterday Walker and Lennon were reunited down the right. Both made a full, flowing contribution to this win. At times they looked like they were enjoying themselves almost as much as I was. Little Azza was just terrific, buzzing up and down, irritating the Sunderland defence like a wasp after an icecream on a summer’s day. He’s learned to vary his game, not only when to take the full-back on or tuck inside but also to sense the pace of the match, picking things up with a dash forward or a calming touch or two to allow team-mates to readjust position. That is the difference that to me gives him the nod over Townsend right now. Andros is still inexperienced: let’s hope he learns, just as Lenny did.
The pair helped each other out at either end of the field. Defending is not part of Lennon’s natural game, whereas Walker quickly gets bored defending, yet time and again he was back, notably towards the end of the game to prevent Sunderland from crossing the ball. Both were tireless. Walker took stick from the crowd when he stayed down after a challenge – he was knackered after several lung-busting runs then using his body strength to stave off an opponent. He’s improved his play and this was his best game this season. If only he could learn to tuck in at the back every single time to bolster his centre-backs.
Capoue did well enough after a shaky start. He could have done with closer attendance from Walker to help out but when Sunderland went longer later in the game and pinned us back into the box, he and Dawson won most everything. Daws was especially strong at the end. Back in the box not stuck upfield, it’s what he does best and his presence was reassuring. Sunderland’s one decent chance went straight to Lloris, who showed his mettle by claiming one important ball to partly banish the memory of his mistake. Capoue won a header then instinctively went to go forward to where the ball landed, pointing to his team-mates to pounce on the loose ball as he would have done, but he can’t be in two places at the same time. That’s what you get with a midfielder at the back.
Holtby did well but tired. This is one problem with all the chopping and changing. Players get gametime but seldom play for 90 minutes. Holtby has been with us for almost a year yet I would be surprised if he has played more than a handful of full games.
AVB brought on Sandro, not in the starting line-up because he does not feel fit enough yet to play three games in a week, to shore up the defence. It was just at the right time and he did well. However, it could have been our downfall. With the stiff uncertainty of a man who has just come on the filed, Sandro handballed a corner but the ref, who was poor throughout, turned a blind eye.
And on moments like that, the game turns. We fully deserved this win, in the second half playing some of our best football of the season so far, yet we win by an own goal and the penalty that never was. That momentum again, we have kept it going and players and managers know it, judging by their expressions at the end of the game.
No complaints, it augers well for the rest of this important month. Just one caveat – we have done well against three teams who allowed us to play a bit. It remains to be seen what happens when sides park the bus at home, as did Hull and West Ham. That’s for the future = the team and manager, that’s a big ‘we’, have earned our praise for their response after the City debacle, so let’s enjoy it with them.