After a week of headlines, of hype, of his first England goal, his first front-page storm – and a new contract too – Andros Townsend made very clear at Villa Park on Sunday that he is a footballer worth paying attention to.
It has been a unique nine days in Townsend’s young career, starting with that debut strike against Montenegro, before another good performance against Poland but this, in the 2-0 win at Aston Villa which sent Spurs up to fifth, must have been the best of the lot.
Townsend put Tottenham ahead in the first half with a lucky goal but his performance in the second half was far better, tearing down the right wing, and either testing Brad Guzan from the edge of the box or shredding Antonio Luna down the outside. He was the comfortable man of the match.
“It was a great performance,” said Andre Villas-Boas afterwards, who has still not been able to start €30m man Erik Lamela in the Premier League, so good has Townsend been. “He grew in the second half and improved, he gives us so many attacking options. It was like we saw for his country, it is great to see him like that.”
The first third of the match had not been excellent. Under brief heavy rain, none of the players could control their footing or the ball, which was gifted back from one team to the other over and over again. The tackling was as poor as anything else, and Ashley Westwood was booked for a late and high challenge on Lewis Holtby.
But it was Townsend who broke the game open with the first goal after half an hour. Taking the ball in space on the right hand side, 30 yards from goal, he curled the ball towards the far post with his left boot. It looked like a cross, and Guzan saw it as one, waiting for either Roberto Soldado or Lewis Holtby to re-direct it. But neither did, and Guzan could not stop it from bouncing into the bottom corner. It was fortunate, probably, but luck is a reward for confident footballers.
The travelling Spurs fans celebrated raucously but went rather overboard when a smoke bomb was thrown on to the pitch, hitting assistant referee David Bryan on the back of the neck. Two Spurs fans were arrested and Villas-Boas confirmed afterwards that “situations like this do not have a place in football”.
The goal gave Spurs confidence and they finally started to attack, Gylfi Sigurdsson heading just wide from Jan Vertonghen’s left-wing cross. The closest they came to scoring again before the break, though, was through Townsend. In first-half added time he found space on the edge of the box and shot powerfully towards the bottom corner, only for Guzan to turn it round the post.
Spurs began the second half well, Townsend shooting just over and Guzan saving from a Paulinho volley, before Villa enjoyed their best spell of the afternoon.
For the first hour they had barely worried Spurs at all. With Libor Kozak up front – willing but not desperately dangerous – they had no aerial threat, no threat in behind and when the ball went forward, as it often did, it never stuck there.
The home crowd were desperate for Christian Benteke – on his way back from a hip injury – to get on and the loudest cheer of the afternoon came when he replaced Kozak. The second loudest was for his first touch and with his next one he nearly drew Villa level. Weimann – moved inside from the wing by Paul Lambert – found Leandro Bacuna on the right, and his cross found Benteke unmarked in the box. He should have scored but, understandably rusty, he headed it over the bar. It was the closest Villa came to scoring all afternoon.
“That was a big moment,” admitted Lambert afterwards. “It might have gone in on another day. He was unlucky, just overstretching for it.”
Benteke carved three more half-chances out for himself in the next few minutes as the hosts chased the game but, having missed their best opportunity to go level, Villa were soon punished by Spurs.
Soldado won the ball down the left, laid it back to Holtby, and ran towards goal. Holtby passed to Paulinho who touched it into the box. Soldado took it in his stride with a perfect first touch before lifting it over Guzan. It was a delightful move, by far the best of the game, and a vindication of Villas-Boas’ decision to prefer the fresher players who had done less work during the 10-day international break.
Soldado and Holtby had been brought in at the expense of Jermain Defoe and Christian Eriksen, while Sandro and Vlad Chiriches also started. “We had lots of fresh legs on the pitch, mostly players who didn’t go to internationals or who played one game,” Villas-Boas explained. “That made the difference and kept the intensity up.”
In the final 20 minutes there was never any question of any result other than an away win. Villas-Boas put Mousa Dembélé on, changing from 4-2-3-1 to a muscular 4-3-3, with Aaron Lennon returning from injury to play on the left. Townsend dipped another shot just over the bar and flashed a cross inches away from Paulinho.
Spurs did not need a third goal as Villa, with the game petering out, hardly looked like scoring one. This was Tottenham’s fourth straight away win and suggested a resolution and focus that has not always run through the veins of this football club.
Lambert, though – who said he could never have played Benteke for any longer – could not find too much fault from those players he did have. “I didn’t think there was much in that game, there wasn’t much in the first half and then in the second half we were in the ascendancy. Brad only had two saves the whole game,” he reflected. If Villa had scored first the game might well have ended very differently, but they do not have Andros Townsend, and they didn’t.
Villa (4-3-3) Guzan 5; Bacuna 6,Vlaar 6, Baker 5, Luna 4; El Ahmadi 6 (Sylla, 72), Westwood 5, Delph 7; Weimann 6, Kozak 4 (Benteke, 61, 6), Agbonlahor 6 (Tonev, 79)
Spurs (4-2-3-1) Lloris 7; Walker 7, Dawson 6, Chiriches 7, Vertonghen 6; Paulinho 7, Sandro 7; Townsend 8, Holtby 7 (Dembele, 72), Sigurdsson 5 (Lennon, 65, 6); Soldado 7 (Defoe, 87)
Man of match: Townsend
Match rating: 5