Andre Villas-Boas may be perceived as ideological, but he recorded a triumph for pragmatism last night.
The new manager is seen by so many as the reverse-Redknapp, remorselessly committed to his one true way of playing the game. Up until last night Spurs had stuck rigidly to his preferred 4-2-3-1 system. It had delivered some counter-attacking successes, not least at Old Trafford, but at White Hart Lane it had been insufficient to pick apart massed defence.
In Spurs’ last home game, a dismal 1-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic, the home fans had implored Villas-Boas to play both Emmanuel Adebayor and Jermain Defoe together rather than alternately. Villas-Boas, with his academic air and his idiosyncratic vocabulary, does not seem like the sort of manager to change his plans based on the enthusiastic suggestions of the south stand. But that is what he did last night, pairing Adebayor and Defoe together in 4-4-2, and it worked perfectly. Defoe scored a hat-trick as Spurs deservedly won 3-1.
Villas-Boas had said on Wednesday that the technical staff at Spurs had discussed a formation change, but it was still a surprise to see it. There was an almost forbidden, subversive thrill to seeing a Villas-Boas side play with two strikers, two wingers and less control of the game, like seeing a bishop in a nightclub. Or like seeing Redknapp back in charge.
“It was good to see,” Villas-Boas said afterwards. “It was important for us to have this option. We’ve played it before – but not from the start. It was good to see us in this system, with Adebayor coming short and linking up play.”
With Adebayor bringing presence and movement up front that Tottenham have lacked recently, Defoe had more space and more chances than he has had recently. When he is confident he is very, very good and his three perfectly-taken goals spoke of a striker who is currently seeing the goal like a marquee.
The first was a delightful cushion-finish from Gareth Bale’s left-wing cross after 21 minutes. The second was powerful into the far bottom corner immediately after half-time to put Spurs back into the lead. The third was the climax of a brilliant counter-attacking move, the best Spurs will produce this season, from another Bale cross.
If this performance reasserted Defoe’s importance to Spurs at the moment, it also changed his importance to the history of the club. “He was amazing,” Villas-Boas said. “It is important for him because he overtakes Teddy Sheringham’s record in the club, which means a lot.” Defoe is now eighth on Spurs’ all-time list.
“For me that's special,” Defoe said of surpassing Sheringham. “ He's a forward I used to watch as a kid. He was a fantastic player, a great goalscorer, for club and country. So I'm really pleased with that."
“It feels amazing. As a forward you are judged on scoring goals. It's the best feeling in the world."
It was certainly a change to see Spurs creating so many chances at home. Before yesterday they had won just two of their seven games at home this season. They had lost their last two here, to Chelsea and Wigan Athletic. Without Mousa Dembele they had lost their tempo in midfield.
But last night was different. Tom Carroll is no Dembele – he is probably less than half his size – but yesterday he was brilliant in just his second start of the season. Carroll was preferred in midfield to Gylfi Sigurdsson or Jake Livermore but he showed precisely why with a performance of intelligence, maturity and some remarkable moments of skill. He had a role in all three goals, finding Bale on the left for the first, playing a perfectly-judged pass to Defoe for the second and hitting Adebayor’s chest from a distance to start the move for the third.
“I thought Carroll had an extremely good game against Norwich,” said Villas-Boas of his only other start this term. “He was not going to have lots of involvement against Wigan and today we saw how skilful and talented he is. It’s fantastic for him.”
Given the quality of the performance it was no surprise that the atmosphere was so positive. The fans were delighted, and not just because they had been proven right. They sung the name of Villas-Boas, while repeatedly and unapologetically calling themselves “Yid Army”, on the day the Metropolitan Police told Spurs there would be no prosecutions over the use of the word. Spurs fans made clear they would describe themselves as they pleased, not as the Society of Black Lawyers advised. Fabrice Muamba came on at half-time to the pitch on which he collapsed earlier this year, and was warmly applauded.
There was only one poor moment, when Spurs threw away their lead just before half-time. Kyle Naughton, playing at left-back, under-hit a back pass to Hugo Lloris. The French goalkeeper stretched for it but was struggling and could only kick it into Robert Beric. The ball flew into the net and for all Spurs’ good work, they went into the break level.
There is a right way and a wrong way to react to that sort of set-back. Spurs did not mope, and three minutes after the re-start they were ahead again.
With Lazio beating Panathinaikos in Rome, Spurs moved up to second in Group J, two points ahead of Maribor and with a good chance of progress. Before yesterday they had drawn all three group games. But last night there was a definite sense of release.
Man of match Defoe.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee A Munukka (Fin).