Amid all the talk of Chelsea re-entering the title race and Arsenal’s maulings of Reading and Newcastle, one could easily overlook the fact that Tottenham are currently third in the Premier League table. Only Chelsea enjoyed a better Christmas period than André Villas-Boas’ men and the Portuguese deserves more credit than he is getting for their recent run of excellent form. At the start of the season his team often looked stronger on paper than it did on the pitch, but recent performances suggest that they have turned a corner.
Since suffering consecutive defeats at the hands of Manchester City and Arsenal, Spurs have lost one of their last eleven games in all competitions: a punishing surrender against Everton in which they conceded two goals in second half stoppage time to lose 2-1. Conceding decisive goals in the final ten minutes had been a problem for Spurs up until that game, but it appears the Goodison Park nightmare was a nadir. Their form since has been close to perfect.
Indeed, Spurs look like a side settled in a rhythm and enjoying their football. Gareth Bale has returned to the peak of his powers on the left, Aaron Lennon is weighing in with assists and goals from the other flank and Jermain Defoe is continuing his one-man revival of the goal-poaching number nine in English football’s top flight. Emmanuel Adebayor has returned to the fray as a second striker, participating in build-up play so that Defoe does not have to, while also being a reference point for Spurs’ attacks down the wings.
In defence, the excellent Jan Vertonghen’s return to centre-back has given the team greater balance and control in central areas, while Kyle Walker has recovered from a highly inconsistent start to the season to rediscover his form going forward. Hugo Lloris appears to have seen off Brad Friedel’s challenge for the number one jersey and will surely regain his place in the French national team in March. With Benoît Assou-Ekotto out since September, Villas-Boas has had problems at left-back but Kyle Naughton’s introduction into the side has proved revelatory.
The young full-back had only made one Premier League appearance before this season but his performances have belied his inexperience at this level. Aside from the 0-0 draw against Lazio in the Europa League, Spurs have won every match in which Naughton has played ninety minutes. In the recent 4-0 victory over Aston Villa, Naughton completed more passes than any other player on the pitch, made more tackles than any other Spurs player and played a glorious eye-of-the-needle through-ball to set up Jermain Defoe’s opener.
Above all else, however, the key to Spurs’ upturn has been the midfield partnership of Sandro and Moussa Dembélé. While neither player is as artful or as inventive as the departed Luka Modrić, the two have combined to form an all-action duo which exerts control over games like no other in the Premier League. Statistically, the partnership has proved almost infallible.
Sandro’s record of 3.8 interceptions per game is the highest in the division, while only eight players make more tackles. Dembélé’s name also features in the top twenty tacklers, while his 53.8 passes per game combined with his 1.9 dribbles make him the perfect all-rounder to accompany the Brazilian enforcer. The aforementioned defeat at Everton was the only match Spurs have lost while pairing the two - and Dembélé had been substituted at the time of their collapse.
The partnership of Sandro and Dembélé has come to personify the new Tottenham: fast, aggressive and consistently productive. Given the simple tactical errors he made at Chelsea, Villas-Boas deserves great credit for the speed with which he has reversed his reputation as dogmatic and obstinate to earn credit for his flexibility. Indeed, it has been a subtle change in his philosophy that has seen Spurs looking so dynamic.
Watching Villas-Boas’ Chelsea, it was clear that his desire for the game to be played at a breakneck speed was at odds with key players’ preferences and abilities. At Spurs, his approach has been subtly modified to fit in with the demands of English football. Whereas his Chelsea team pressed so hard and so high up the pitch that they continually lost all structure and became glaringly vulnerable to counter-attacks, his Spurs side has on occasion defended deeper and once or twice ‘parked the bus’, in the parlance of our times, knowing that it can be to their benefit.
Villas-Boas has quickly moulded a side with an acute understanding of tempo: one that understands that the dominance of Sandro and Dembélé combined with wide options in Walker and Naughton will secure the middle third of the pitch for the most part, and that on the occasions the opposition finds itself in the ascendancy, the pace of Bale, Lennon and Defoe can swing momentum back in Spurs’ favour in a flash.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Spurs’ situation is that they are operating from a position of strength in the transfer market. The sensible business choices of Daniel Levy have kept the club on an even keel and at least some of the Modrić money will be used to mount bids for Shakhtar playmaker Willian and Internacional striker Leandro Damião. Signing either would immediately improve Tottenham’s chances of regularly finishing in the Premier League’s top four.
If André Villas-Boas can deliver Champions League football this season then who knows? He may finally get the recognition he deserves.
All stats from WhoScored.com