Jan Vertonghen beats Thomas Vermaelen in battle of Belgians
Centre-half's poise and control leave Tottenham well set for reaching the Champions League
Andre Villas-Boas has instilled something serious into this Tottenham side. At White Hart Lane, the collective collapse never came.
Twice last year Tottenham Hotspur went ahead against Arsenal and both times, under Harry Redknapp and early in Villas-Boas's reign, they fell into dismal 5-2 defeats.
Villas-Boas, though, has taught Tottenham something controlled and focussed and ruthless, not traditional Spurs adjectives. So this weekend, as they built and then sat on a 2-0 lead which returned them to third place in the Premier League, they did so with a calm efficiency with which not all their fans will be familiar.
Over the course of this season Spurs are bearing Villas-Boas' imprint increasingly clearly. The Portuguese is a meticulous planner and organiser, a man keen for his team to play like one, with clearly understood roles for his players and narrow gaps between them.
Gareth Bale's recent remarkable run – yesterday he scored his ninth goal in seven games – could not have been part of the plan in the summer. But this game, for the first time in weeks, was not only about Bale, even though he did put Spurs 1-0 ahead. It was a performance of perfect collective organisation, as they repelled Arsenal's dominance of possession all afternoon, restricting their rivals to desperately few opportunities given the amount they had the ball. And, at the other end, Spurs were deadly.
In a game when Arsenal's defence descended, yet again, into acrimonious chaos, Tottenham produced arguably their tightest defensive display of the season. Villas-Boas paired Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson at centre-back and they dealt perfectly with Arsenal's brisk passing and movement, which was better in the first 20 minutes than for some time.
Spurs were happy to begin slower than Arsenal, knowing that they did not need to gamble too much too soon. And the visitors' brisk start might well have put them ahead but Vertonghen made one excellent tackle on Olivier Giroud, running in behind. This was probably the Belgian's best game yet for Spurs, and a crucial second-half tackle on Theo Walcott was just as good.
Vertonghen is showing that he is a defender of poise, nous and control, areas in which he certainly surpasses his compatriot and rival Thomas Vermaelen.
Of course, Arsenal did score one but that was an own goal from a set-piece. In open play they created almost nothing, despite finishing the game with all of their best attacking players on the pitch. The great Spurs unravelling at the Emirates which happened twice last year never looked plausible at White Hart Lane.
For much of the game Tottenham were outpassed in midfield. Against Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere this is always a possibility but they have been slightly lacking there ever since Sandro was injured in January. Mousa Dembélé is very good but tired while Scott Parker is not the player he was last season. But the central pair worked, with wingers Gylfi Sigurdsson and Aaron Lennon, tremendously hard, closing down Arsenal's spaces and holding them off. It is not the best midfield in the country but it can provide a passable platform.
This was good enough to keep Arsenal to 0-0 but the beauty of this Tottenham team is the ruthlessness that goes with their discipline. So the first time that Arsenal played loose, with a hazy backline and no pressure on the ball, Spurs went for the throat. Gylfi Sigurdsson darted the ball in between two defenders, Gareth Bale ran on to it and put them ahead. He had barely seen the ball before then but when it mattered most he did his job.
Like any tough fighter, Spurs followed their first blow with an instant second. This time it was Parker in midfield, free to pick his pass, and Lennon running behind the defence. It was simple clinical football – far better than anything Arsenal produced – and it won them the game.
There were chances in the second half for Spurs to go 3-1 up, and the one moment in the game when they lacked purpose was when Sigurdsson squared the ball to no-one when through on goal. Jermain Defoe came on and flashed one effort just wide.
But Tottenham did not need a third goal. This was, in the end, a performance of confidence and conviction, and when Arsenal threw Per Mertesacker up front and sent Wojciech Szczesny up for corners they just looked desperate and frantic.
The noise at the end was as loud as the Lane has been in years. There was glee, obviously, at beating their rivals and the thrill of going back to third. There was some relief, of course, in the seventh minute of added time but the win had not looked in doubt for some time.
At this stage last season Spurs were collapsing, costing them Champions League football. Villas-Boas has taught this team not to fold against Arsenal. There is a confidence here they will not crumble in the spring again either.
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