Tottenham must not trade on excuses after Arsenal derby demolition

Originally published for Goal UK on 18th November 2012

Facts do not lie and Tottenham’s form guide makes for particularly poor reading following the 5-2 mauling in the north London derby. Two massive tests in consecutive weeks have seen them ship seven goals, scoring three, but crucially losing both matches to ManchesterCity and Arsenal.

The defeats have helped shape the Premier League table further and Spurs now sit eighth, perhaps rather fortunately only six points off the coveted fourth-place. Of course, anything other than fourth will be deemed a failure on Andre Villas-Boas’ part, largely on account of the success of his predecessor Harry Redknapp.

But unlike in past weeks in the aftermath of lamentable results against the likes of Norwich, Wigan and Chelsea, the Portuguese coach could retreat to White Hart Lane on Saturday evening relatively unscathed.

He showed remarkable fortitude in what can only be described as a Tottenham fans’ nightmare as Emmanuel Adebayor received a deserved red card for a reckless and dangerous challenge on Santi Cazorla. Per Mertesacker’s excellent header pinned Tottenham back but had they survived until half-time, the story may have been different.

For Tottenham were the dominant team (at least going by possession stats) for the first 15 minutes of the second period and although in the grand scheme of things it made no difference to the end result, it was a promising sign after what had been a somewhat surprising switch to a 3-4-2 formation.

In reality, the task was nigh-on impossible. Few teams will keep this Arsenal team, with its array of creative maestros, at bay for almost 80 minutes with 10 men. Throw in the modifier that is Tottenham’s vastly out of form defence and it was a recipe for a high-scoring defeat.

But in a perverse way – and following the rule that is often suggested of teams in defeat – Villas-Boas would have learned more about his team, as well the critics and pundits looking on at the chaos embroiling the Emirates pitch.

The starting line-up suggested Villas-Boas recognised his team’s own fragility but, following the old adage that attack forms the best part of defence, was his the greatest chance of a win. Though a Villas-Boas 4-4-2 is really only that rigid and archaic in name alone, it belies the courage it took to start both Jermain Defoe and Adebayor merely nine months after the very same formation led to an identical 5-2 defeat to Arsene Wenger’s side. Perhaps we all should have seen this coming.

Hampered by the sending off and subsequent goal glut that gave the Gunners a 3-1 lead, Villas-Boas pursued a route few in the Premier League would have the gall to try. Maybe Daniel Levy’s words throughout the week about the magnitude and importance of the derby ricocheted around Villas-Boas’ head as he made his half-time notes, but to see his team emerge without either full-back and shift to a three man defence was staggering.

It may not have worked but Villas-Boas certainly confirmed to the many fans still doubting his place in the dugout that he has the makings of a true Tottenham manager; that ability to cast off the shackles and attack for attack’s sake, to entertain and exhilarate in equal measure.

Taking positives from a 5-2 defeat seems folly but many will acknowledge a gutsy display when they see one. This did not have the feel of the dire 3-0 loss at Arsenal in 2009 when the side collectively laid down and watched Cesc Fabregas tip-toe his way through the defence (though Cazorla certainly had his free-running boots on).

William Gallas, who had a goal disallowed, continued his personal mission to squeeze his body out of the ‘centre-back’ pigeon-hole (and presumably into the ‘fraudulent footballer’ section) as he careered around his own box, causing pandemonium before finding Lukas Podolski’s shot deflect off him and in. His vacuous marking for Olivier Giroud’s goal left his overall performance, well, about par for the course this season. If there are any long-term positives to take from Saturday’s defeat, finally seeing the back of Gallas may be worth the three points lost.

Behind him, Hugo Lloris was also surprisingly given a start and the French No.1 did little wrong. In fact, where it not for a couple of fine saves – notably from Giroud headers – Spurs could have trudged off on the end of a far larger defeat.

No-one will be pleased with a 5-2 loss, especially to the sworn enemy, but there are reasons to smile through the hurt. And if there is any justice, Levy, who sat high in the Emirates overseeing proceedings, may have actually wondered if there was a way he could help his new manager. If Villas-Boas can nurse his team through to January, Levy must back his man in the market. Saturday just added weight to many frustrations Villas-Boas must feel given the strains of the summer.

Ultimately, the biggest test of a team’s mettle is how they react to defeat but it will not get any easier as a daunting trip to Lazio precedes the arrival of Sam Allardyce and his dogs of war at White Hart Lane next weekend. Though the club can take positives from their loss to Arsenal, they must not lose sight of the end goal and realise that you can only trade on excuses for so long.


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