Superb Tottenham display a huge step forward and reminder of ...

11 Mar 2024

Tottenham Hotspur had been waiting for months to play like this.

Everyone knew that Spurs could play well, but it had increasingly been taken on trust over the last few months — once their superb start to the season had faded away.

Tottenham - Figure 1
Photo The Athletic

Ange Postecoglou generated so much credit in those first 10 league games, with the way his team tried to play, the sense of unity and togetherness they inspired, that he was largely forgiven for his side’s difficult winter.

So Tottenham fans were patient when the team struggled in November and December without key players. They stayed patient in January and February when players returned but the team still refused to shift back into top gear.

But it had felt for some time as if there had to be more to come from Spurs. There was a series of comeback home wins (against modest opposition) but it never felt fully convincing, it never felt quite right, not like it did in the autumn.

Why did this team keep needing to fall behind in a game to get them going? Why could they not just impose themselves on the opposition from the start? Why did they keep leaking goals at one end, and still keep getting frustrated by opponents’ low blocks at the other? Would we ever see ‘peak Angeball’ again, or were those first few weeks of the season just a moment in time, receding into the past?

Postecoglou celebrates at full time (James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Here at Villa Park, in the cold and rain, against one of the best teams in the country so far this season, Tottenham answered all of those questions and more.

Tottenham - Figure 2
Photo The Athletic

This was Spurs’ first clean sheet in the league for almost three months. This was their first away win for just as long. It was their first win against a team above them in the league table since they beat Liverpool in September. And while Spurs may never recreate the exact feel of those thrilling first weeks of the season, there was something about this performance that sets it apart.

There was the high stakes of the occasion, as Spurs reduced the gap to Villa to two points with a game in hand. Fourth place has not felt as achievable for Tottenham this season as it does right now. There was the quality of the opponent, a much-improved Villa side, who have already beaten Arsenal and Manchester City at Villa Park this season.

But above all, there was a sense of control that Tottenham had, of having the game exactly where they wanted it, of being the proactive side throughout. Rather than needing to go behind to kick themselves into gear, Tottenham held Villa at arm’s length all afternoon. Rather than struggling to get round the opposition back five, they wore them out in the first half then cut through them at will in the second.


The Briefing: Aston Villa 0 Tottenham 4 - Stirring Sarr and McGinn's ugly red as Spurs close the gap

Tottenham - Figure 3
Photo The Athletic

Villa’s most threatening moments in the first half were long balls to Ollie Watkins, which Micky van de Ven was always able to deal with. For all the questions about Spurs’ leaky defence, this makes it two games in a row in which they faced just one shot on target, and when Guglielmo Vicario had almost nothing to do in open play. (Van de Ven went off early in the second half so it will remain to be seen what this means for Spurs’ defence in future.)

And when Postecoglou was asked afterwards whether this was the best Spurs have played since he took over, he pointed to the new-found defensive solidity as the most important aspect: “Considering the context of the game, the venue and the opponent, it was as controlled as we’d been in any game all year, the way we handled everything. There’s a lot of growth in this team, and it’s one of those areas: can we control games, even against quality opponents?”

Tottenham did exactly that against Aston Villa, knowing that their moment would come at the other end if they just stayed patient. First it came with Pape Matar Sarr, making a run only he would make, getting on the end of Dejan Kulusevski’s pass, before crossing for James Maddison to score.

Villa had lost their composure and when Kulusevski nicked the ball from Youri Tielemans, Brennan Johnson had it in the back of the net seconds later.

Tottenham - Figure 4
Photo The Athletic

When John McGinn was sent off, the game was over and Spurs were left simply toying with Villa. Son Heung-min and Timo Werner completed the scoring in added time. (The fact that Spurs scored four good goals, with four different goalscorers, was especially pleasing to the manager, given that they have not always got “bang for their buck” in front of goal this season.)

Son scores Tottenham’s third goal (James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

After those last two goals, the only part of the ground that was packed was the away end. When the Spurs’ players went over to the fans to celebrate it felt as if we were witnessing something we had not seen before, a performance of maturity, authority and control, a performance over 90 minutes, from Postecoglou’s Spurs. After months of just trying to tread water, this was a big step forward.

Of course, this puts Spurs in a stronger position to finish fourth but as Postecoglou said there is still lots of football left to be played this season. And the most important thing, as he said on Friday, is not just to be in the Champions League next season for the sake of it. Spurs did that last season and it did not do them any good.

What really matters is Spurs’ “growth as a team”, this season and beyond, and that exists independently of what European competition they might be playing in next season. It is all about continuing to move forward, aiming to be a team that challenges at the top again. And on that long road, which Tottenham are still near the start of, Villa Park this Sunday afternoon will always be a step.


Klopp and Arteta's history tells us Postecoglou is on the right track at Tottenham

(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

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