Spurs' fail-safe system

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There was only one negative for Gerry Francis as he basked in the aftermath of a job well done on Saturday night. "How," he might have reflected, "am I going to get a few million quid out of Alan Sugar now?"

Barely has the Tottenham chairman conceded he might have to return to the transfer jungle than the team produce an eloquent defence of his parsimony.

They travelled to Middlesbrough, who spent almost pounds 10m more than Spurs this summer, and won 3-0. The result was as deserved as it was comprehensive.

Yet the thought that must have gone through Francis' mind, and, he hopes, Sugar's, was: "If this is what we can do without spending, think what we could achieve if we did".

The likelihood is that with some investment in human resources, as the Amstrad boss might put it, Spurs would not now be playing catch-up but would be in the leading pack. They paid for their refusal to spend when the injuries arrived. Losing the likes of Darren Anderton, Teddy Sheringham and Chris Armstrong would tax any side but Spurs were especially hit because of their lack of depth. At home to Leicester they even played Sol Campbell at centre-forward (and lost).

Anderton, like Gary Mabbutt, is still out but the front pair are back and Spurs look a different side. Sheringham, in particular, has added a another dimension. Under Francis Spurs have been criticised for being "boring", a cardinal sin for the club of Arthur Rowe and Bill Nicholson. It is not entirely undeserved - there have been times when the "long ball" has been overdone.

However, on Saturday Sheringham provided the missing link, knitting the midfield to Armstrong. Long passes were played judiciously rather than automatically and the ball, more often than not, was moved along the ground. It was the type of performance England could have done with against Poland, as John Gorman, watching for Glenn Hoddle, must have noted.

Another display that would have caught the scout's eye was Campbell's. Before Tottenham could open Middlesbrough up they had to stop them playing. This is where Campbell came in. When, within the first 10 minutes he was bamboozled by Fabrizio Ravanelli, one wondered whether Campbell, still a rookie centre-half, would find the wily Italian too demanding. It was the only time he beat Campbell all match.

It helped that Tottenham had a system, carefully designed by Francis, to neuter Boro's creative twins, Juninho and Nick Barmby. The back eight defended as a unit, the full-backs were prepared to come inside, so were the wide men. Time and again Middlesbrough's attacks were funnelled into the strong heart of the Tottenham defence where the under-rated David Howells and the promising Allan Nielsen protected Campbell and Colin Calderwood. Forwards were given so little time on the ball, or space to turn, they must have thought they were facing Tony Adams and Steve Bould, not their north London counterparts.

Of course, tactics are reliant on players. While Spurs stuck to their brief, Middlesbrough neglected theirs. Their attacks are built on the type of inter-play and one-touch passing Liverpool showed against Sion in midweek. Unlike Liverpool Boro did not support the man in possession often enough, and when they did that man did not always release the ball.

Their defence appears to have succumbed to the local disease. North of the Dales, it seems, defending is a forgotten art. Before yesterday's unexpected clean sheet by Newcastle the three north-east sides had conceded 22 goals in their last nine matches.

Though well-taken, all three Spurs goals were poor defensively. The first, a Sheringham free-kick, was chipped in from more than 30 yards with Alan Miller back-pedalling in vain.

The second, a minute later, saw the 5ft 6in Ruel Fox head in Howells' cross unchallenged amid a defence with three 6ft centre-halves. The third followed a sweeping passing move, the ball being worked across the back before finding Stephen Carr on the right. He ran 50 yards, going by Emerson and Curtis Fleming, before crossing for Sheringham to glance in.

By then Middlesbrough's highest Riverside gate was looking like its lowest. Those that remained booed them off the pitch before wondering whether some of the pounds 20m spent on the forward line might have been better invested in defence.

As the media waited for Bryan Robson and Francis to appear, a security guard's walkie-talkie crackled into life. "Have we found the missing padlocks yet?" Boro's defence will need more than that to prevent this season's promise from slipping away.

Goals: Sheringham (20) 0-1; Fox (21) 0-2; Sheringham (89) 0-3.

Middlesbrough (3-4-2-1): Miller; Pearson, Vickers, Whyte (Stamp, 29); Cox, Emerson, Mustoe, Fleming; Juninho, Barmby; Ravanelli. Substitutes not used: Moore, Wheland, Beck, Roberts (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-1-1): Walker; Carr, Calderwood, Campbell, Edinburgh; Fox, Nielsen, Howells, Wilson; Sheringham; Armstrong. Substitutes not used: Nethercott, Dozzell, Allen, Austin, Bardsen (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Middlesbrough: Emerson. Tottenham: Edinburgh, Fox, Nielsen.

Man of the match: Sheringham. Attendance: 30,215.