Andre Villas-Boas’ Tottenham Hotspur team will pass you to death given half the chance, but when it came down to brass tacks yesterday, it was a free-kick into the box that landed at the feet of a centre-back that decided the match.
Jan Vertonghen got there in the end, neatly finishing Kyle Walker’s cross from the right that fell to him via Michu’s misjudged clearing header and opening the door for Spurs. The goal had nothing of the grace of some of Spurs’ intricate passing patterns but, goodness me, it did the trick.
It is the great legacy of the all-conquering Barcelona team of the era: thou shalt pass, and in the case of Spurs and Swansea, thou shalt pass a hell of a lot. There were some magnificent moves from Spurs that went backwards and sideways and forwards, when you lost count of how many times they had moved possession on, but as the second half wore on it seemed like amid all this grand football they might forget to score.
There is so much talent in this Spurs side and fourth place, where they find themselves this morning, feels just about right. Even Michael Laudrup conceded that his team did not, on the balance of power, deserve to win the game but they almost got a point, and Tottenham would only have had themselves to blame.
Villas-Boas, right, lamented missed opportunities but he praised his team’s steady grip on the game. “I think if one team was going to win, it was going to be us. We had lots of opportunities – 23 shots, the bigger share of possession - and we were very patient and persistent in what we were doing. We kept moving the ball well,” he said.
“Swansea, defensively, were very, very good and it was difficult to break them down. But we have so many opportunities and chances that it would have been extremely unfair to come out with a point from this game. It was good for us. A hard fought win but truly deserved.”
The game’s only moment of controversy came when Hugo Lloris and Michu challenged for an awkward high-bouncing ball in injury-time at the end of the game and the Spanish striker came off much the worse, lying motionless on the turf while play moved up the other end.
Chaos broke out on the two benches. Laudrup and his assistants were furious with the referee Mike Dean for not stopping the game as substitute Andros Townsend ran through on goal. Some of the Spurs staff misinterpreted Swansea’s reaction as a penalty appeal and reacted angrily. On the pitch Chico Flores, the Swansea defender, locked horns with Townsend for playing on and then Walker stepped in on his team-mate’s behalf with a clenched fist.
Even a man as mild-mannered as Laudrup was moved to swear in quiet disbelief that an obvious head injury had not prompted Dean to stop the game immediately. “When I saw him [Michu] like this I said, ‘F****** hell, he’s unconscious or whatever’.” He even compared it to the infamous collision between Harald Schumacher and Patrick Battiston in 1982 although thankfully this one was nothing like as serious or as deliberate.
Mercifully, Michu clambered to his feet and carried on, although for a good few moments there were serious concerns about him. It was, the goal aside, the one moment in the game when there was a spark of contention amid long periods of good quality passing but low quality finishing from both sides.
The statistic that defines Spurs’ season is the one that says that if games lasted 80 minutes rather than 90 then Spurs would be top of the Premier League, so many goals have they conceded in the final ten minutes – including two against Everton the previous weekend. Villas-Boas acknowledged that a tendency to concede late was a concern, although his explanation as to how he had dealt with it meant another trip straight back to the AVB management-speak manual.
“We addressed it among ourselves in training by stimulating concentration in the last part of training,” he said. “It is very difficult, because you can’t recreate the stress of a game environment. But we had a go. It does not mean that the problem is solved, but the players are conscious we have conceded in the past and they want to get it right.
“We have increased the complexity of the tasks the players have been doing at the end of training. The more complex the exercise, the more concentration they need at the end. ”
Spurs might have scored in the first 15 minutes, first when Mousa Dembele stole the ball away from Michu and teed up Jermain Defoe, whose shot was blocked by the Swansea striker. Flores did well to get his way in the path of Emmanuel Adebayor’s shot from Walker’s cross two minutes later. The real star of Swansea’s defence was captain Ashley Williams who made a number of important tackles.
Michu tried to beat Hugo Lloris from just inside his own half before the break, an example of how little Swansea were seeing of the Spurs goal. The away side’s best chance was a header for Nathan Dyer from Wayne Routledge’s cross just after half-time and they never really got that close again.
Moved to his favoured centre-half position, ahead of Steven Caulker, Vertonghen had been excellent all afternoon and he took his goal beautifully. Without the injured Gareth Bale, there were assured performances from Sandro, Walker and Dembele. Scott Parker made his first appearance of the season, as a late substitute, the first time he has played since England’s Euro 2012 elimination at the hands of Italy on 24 June.
The Christmas and New Year run-in is not particularly hard on Spurs – Stoke, Aston Villa, Sunderland and Reading – and come next month they could find themselves in a strong position. Although Emmanuel Adebayor came off with a hamstring injury yesterday, the trend at the club is that players are coming back.
“For us, it is important to break out of this [chasing] pack and join the top,” Villas-Boas said. “But we have the understanding it is not going to be easy.” He is right, of course, but one decent Christmas run and they will be right in the thick of it.