When Daniel Levy replaced Andre Villas-Boas with Tim Sherwood this must have been precisely the sort of afternoon he envisaged. After months of slow, muddled, anxious performances at White Hart Lane, ponderous in midfield, nervous up front, at odds with the crowd, this felt like the freshest of new starts, two days before New Year’s Eve.
Tottenham were very worthy winners against Stoke City, playing the brisk, confident attacking football that had evaded them here for some time. Spurs did not score three goals in a league game during the last eight months of Villas-Boas’s tenure but now they have done it twice in three games, giving Sherwood his second win as head coach.
“They were good from start to finish,” said Sherwood of his players, after their most convincing home performance of the season. As his 4-4-2 team tore into a rather limited Stoke side, it almost felt as if a weight here had been lifted. “We set about Stoke from the outset and moved the ball well and created enough chances to win two games in the first half.”
Sherwood’s game-plan is simpler than Andre Villas-Boas’s was, and that is no bad thing. From the start the intention was to free Aaron Lennon down the right wing, and for his crosses to target Spurs’ front pair. It should have sent them ahead after 15 minutes, as Kyle Naughton found Lennon and his pass was somehow skewed by first Emmanuel Adebayor and then Christian Eriksen with the goal inviting. Next time it was Paulinho who found Lennon, only for Soldado to shoot wide, before Soldado mis-timed headers from Lennon and Ezekiel Fryers crosses within one minute.
Soldado did not allow his head to drop, though, and soon helped Spurs into the lead. Pulling out to the right, he found Emmanuel Adebayor with a perfect ball to the far-post. Adebayor chested it to set up an acrobatic volley which Ryan Shawcross blocked with his hand. Soldado stepped up and, for the fifth time in his Spurs career, scored from the spot.
It was the least that Tottenham deserved and they finished the first half just as well as they started the second. Paulinho shot over the bar twice but more than made it up for it with some remarkable moments of individual skill, managing a few times to flick the ball over his head with his heel, either to a team-mate or for his own run.
Paulinho was excellent – Sherwood called him “immense and fantastic” - but Dembélé was even better. This was probably his finest ever performance for Tottenham, as he revelled in the space given him by 4-4-2, taking the ball from his defence, starting attacks and setting Spurs’ tempo throughout. Early in the second half Dembélé characteristically took the ball in midfield and charged forward with it, eventually passing to Lennon, whose sharp cross was horribly scuffed by Soldado.
Dembélé might have sensed he would have to score the second himself, so that is just what he did: 25 yards from goal, he carried the ball past Steven N’Zonzi, checked back the other way and rifled the ball into the far bottom corner with his left foot. It was only Dembélé’s second league goal for Spurs, but if he can follow it with more he could be a very special player.
The game was over and it took only another four minutes for the third to come. Adebayor broke forward and passed to Soldado, knocking his return pass into the path of Lennon to his right. Lennon controlled it on his thigh and hit it on the volley, and a deflection off Erik Pieters took it over Thomas Sorensen and into the top corner.
From that point on it was fairly gentle, with Lennon and Adebayor withdrawn for Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli. Tottenham travel to Old Trafford on Wednesday afternoon and Sherwood will not want to make too many changes from this, nearly his best side. Lamela might have scored a fourth when Andy Wilkinson blocked his shot but in terms of action that was it.
Stoke City had been out of the match for a long time. There was really just one moment when they might have got into it, when Michael Dawson brought down Oussama Assaidi in the box when it was still 0-0. Kevin Friend waved play on and when Mark Hughes merely said that it “could have been a penalty”, it was because he knew that his team had simply been out-played by the better side.
“If I am honest, in terms of the quality on show and the way Spurs played we found it very difficult to get anywhere near them,” said the Stoke manager, entirely accurately. “They were sharper to each and every ball and half-a-yard quicker. They are a good team and they looked fully-motivated and every one of the players wanted to get on the ball and affect the game.”
The most impact Stoke had on a one-sided second half was when Charlie Adam fouled Paulinho, forcing him off with a foot injury, leaving him struggling for the trip to Old Trafford. Sherwood compared his injury list to an “infirmary” and Spurs would like some good news before New Year’s Day.
These difficult trips are not the games that will define Stoke’s season. Everton and Liverpool at home next month will inform more.
Tottenham (4-4-2): Lloris 6; Naughton 7, Dawson 6, Chiriches 7, Fryers 6; Lennon 7 (Lamela, 75), Paulinho 8 (Capoue, 62), Dembele 9, Eriksen 7; Soldado 7, Adebayor 7 (Chadli, 80)
Stoke (4-2-3-1): Sorensen 5; Wilkinson 5 (Muniesa, 81), Shawcross 5, Cameron 6, Pieters 5; N’Zonzi 7, Palacios 5 (Pennant, 68, 5); Walters 6, Ireland 5 (Adam, 50, 3), Assaidi 5; Crouch 5
Man of the match: Dembele