On one flank, Tottenham had two established internationals neatly interchanging, working in patterns and flying up and down the pitch. On the other, two international hopefuls, trying to further their cause, building their form for Andre Villas-Boas’ team in a 2-1 win at Southampton.
Gareth Bale and Jan Vertonghen have the makings of a fine full-back and winger combination. The benchmark in the Premier League these days is the marauding duo of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar at Everton and there is every chance that Tottenham’s left side could be as productive but for the Belgian’s preference for a central role.
Kyle Walker and Aaron Lennon are a slightly different case. The latter is nearing his greatest spell of form for Spurs – somewhat running against the presumption that he would struggle to adapt to Villas-Boas’ preference for inverted wingers (or at least wingers capable of threatening in the middle of the pitch).
His career thus far has been built on the jet-propelled heels that have sent opponents in a spin as he scurries outside them. On Sunday, Lennon created the game’s second goal doing exactly what the management would have wanted; cutting inside his marker and attacking the centre-backs. It was yet further encouragement that Lennon is a far more intelligent wide man than some give him credit.
Walker on the other hand has endured something of a rough ride this campaign. Since bursting into the starting XI at the beginning of last season, ousting Vedran Corluka, a reliable right-back and someone who regularly linked well with Lennon, Walker pushed his way into the England reckoning. There is a myth that his form endured the span of Harry Redknapp’s final season, though.
Whether through fatigue, a collection of niggling injuries or simply a change in the way opposition teams set out against him, he tailed off and was no longer the explosive force he was on his introduction. Despite missing the summer’s European Championship, Walker’s pre-season was patchy before his first-team performances underwhelmed in the opening few games of the Villas-Boas reign.
His mistake for Juan Mata’s second goal and the soft concession of the ball in the build-up to Chelsea’s winner one week ago highlighted the plight of the 22-year-old. He has cut a frustrated figure, bewildered at his loss of form and even made the ill-advised error of responding to a smattering of abuse he received on Twitter following the game.
He later spoke of the incident, telling The Times: “I have seen with Ashley Cole and Ryan Bertrand what has happened and I don’t want to be in that category. I thought I needed to concentrate on my own performance for a few weeks.”
The initially puerile reaction belies his fierce determination to rediscover the form that saw him named the 2012 PFA Young Player of the Year. The self-restraint he demonstrated in deleting his account is admirable, as is the work he is putting in on the training ground.
“They [those on Twitter] did not know how much work I was putting in, not just on match days but throughout the week. I am probably the first one in and the last one out every day. If that means doing gym or some extra swimming, I am prepared to do that to make me a better player.”
The faith shown by Villas-Boas should also contribute to an upturn in fortunes. Some expected to see Kyle Naughton at right-back, or even Adam Smith for the Thursday night game against Maribor, but Walker was afforded 90 minutes to make amends for the display against Chelsea.
Unfortunately, the overall display from Tottenham in their insipid 1-1 draw with the Slovenian champions made it difficult for Walker, or indeed anyone, to make a noteworthy contribution. Still, his performance appeared more fundamental, less eye-catching, perhaps a conscious return to getting the basics right.
At Southampton, Walker gave a diligent, if patchy display. There were encouraging signs – most notably in the quick, incisive one-two with Lennon that left Danny Fox in a daze and Walker in space to attack the byline and find Jermain Defoe. It really should have been an assist for the right-back had Defoe not uncharacteristically smashed his chance from 12 yards the wrong side of the post.
He wasn’t overly troubled by Adam Lallana, Saints’ captain, who only really found joy when he drifted into central positions, though Walker was caught in possession on a couple of dawdling moments in the second period. There was also the wasted chance to get his name on the scoresheet as he sliced his shot from just inside the box wide of the near post.
The signs are there that he is coming through a difficult period, however, and indeed Walker appears aware enough to understand what he must do.
He explains: “When people know what you are about, it is difficult. They know your game whereas last season I came as a bit of a surprise to everyone. I will keep working and training – doing the extra bit I need to. Hopefully, my form will come back.”
The element of unknown helped Walker build his reputation, now it will take further education to sustain it.
Fortunately he has a couple of players alongside him who have had to go through the very same self-analysis. Lennon and Bale have both had spells where opponents would send two or more men out to mark them and have had to reinvent aspects of their play.
The road may be longer than he likes but Walker is slowly coming out of his slump and adding the strings to the bow that would see him justifiably return alongside Lennon, his partner in crime, to the England team.