After beating Everton 1-0 with little shape and structure and complaints of a slow sluggish start all eyes on St James Park with the hope of a positive reaction. Tim Sherwood said he'd have words with the players much like he did at half-time against the Toffeemen. We played better in the second half this past Sunday. Yesterday evening we gave ourselves a proper full ninety minutes work-out. The reaction (regardless of the quality of the opposition) was on the money. Sherwood's influence not lacking substance on this occasion.
I scratched my head at Christian Eriksen sat on the bench. The formation was different to what we've come to expect but for the first time there appeared to be just a hint of progress and a subtle nudge towards that fabled identity we need to recapture to have any chance of building momentum for what will be a brutal March (Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool).
Sherwood mixed it up, rotated but more importantly found a balance to the midfield which has not been evident in previous games. The lack of balance means we haven't quite utilised players in the right way, failing to amplify their abilities on/off the ball. It's been laboured and confusing (not always obvious what on-field responsibilities had been given pre-game).
Etienne Capoue started in a holding position that allowed Nabil Bentaleb to push further forward (a reoccurring theme for the attack minded midfielders). Just this one tweak altered the entire complexion of our midfield dynamics. Mousa Dembele and Aaron Lennon wide of Emmanuel Adebayor with Paulinho tucked in behind. This was almost reminiscent of a flawed Andre Villas-Boas line-up except, this version actually worked.
Capoue held, Bentaleb - although more expressive - still retained his bite and aided with breaking up play when Newcastle attacked. Lennon and Dembele worked the flanks, cutting in, with Walker marauding as per his usual ethic.
At the back, Younes Kaboul returned alongside Jan Vertonghen. The spine of the team, strong.
We played (from the start) with more urgency and tempo. There was more purpose with our movement. Individuals flourished which elevated the overall team performance. Spurs were professional and punishing with their execution. Again, sure, Newcastle made it fairly easy but then we never really gave them a chance to get any type of grip on the game.
First half -
Adebayor had a shot wide from a Dembele cut back. Paulinho also with an effort thanks to some determined work out wide from Kaboul. The football was nice, incisive. You always felt Tottenham would carve out a chance when pushing forward.
Hugo Lloris saved from Cisse. A floated free-kick, headed down - Hugo with his leg stuck out saving what could and should have been a goal had the Toon striker blessed the chance with more conviction.
The first goal came from Bentaleb's perseverance out wide, crossing the ball in with Krul getting his fingers to it and Adebayor calmly accepting the tap in.
At the back Kaboul was a colossal figure. Almost mythical considering how rarely we are treated with his presence.
Paulinho played a through ball to Walker who crossed with Lennon almost connecting. Effective football on the break.
Lloris was at it again, this time attacking ball towards the edge of the box with Cisse's attempted lob bouncing out of play. Lennon had another chance, this time cutting in, his shot striking the outside of the post.
Newcastle perked up towards end of half. Endeavour with no end product. Spurs still solid in possession, more dangerous.
Second half -
It didn't take us too long to consolidate our first win up there for ten years. I remember that day (Timothy Atuba) very well, mainly because we never beat Newcastle at St James Park and because we never won much away from home. Bentaleb involved again, passing to Paulinho who flicked it to Adebayor who had enough space to park three white Range Rovers. He smacked the ball goal bound, cruel for Krul who saved but only into the path of Paulinho for the 2-0.
Then the Hugo Lloris show ensued. He obviously thought Arsenal scouts were in the stands watching.
Lloris with fingernails on a shot that buzzed across the goal.
Then Lloris saved a shot from Gouffran that moved as it made its way goal bound.
Then Lloris breaks the Matrix with Neo reflexes from point blank range from Debuchy.
Again, Lloris saving low this time from Cisse with his leg.
Hugo you bloody massive show-off.
A goal from the home side could have changed the complexion of the game but Lloris had other ideas. Spurs weathering the little storm that looked like it would produce thunder had it not been for those lightning saves.
Bentaleb had a long range shot (he's going to score one of these soon).
Tottenham always with numbers in midfield. Breaking up play, moving quickly forward, always looking to create trouble for the Newcastle back-line.
Spurs made it three nil with Chadli laying it onto Paulinho who stroked the ball to Townsend. His shot saved, Adebayor with the follow-up volleying into the ground, the ball bouncing over the luckless Krul.
Ade was replaced by Soldado (Townsend already on for Dembele and Chadli on for Lennon).
Spurs had time for a fourth. Chadli with a goal as beautiful as his pecs. Bentaleb nudging the ball to Nacer, edge of box, sublime curling placement into far corner. Soldado involved in the build up, initially playing it out wide giving Chadli room to position himself to receive and score.
Townsend almost made it 5-0, defender and keeper closing down space and time, Andros unable to to beat either.
The game ends, we retain 5th spot, three points and 30 goals adrift of title challenging Liverpool in 4th. Tottenham have the best away record in the league. I can't emphasis how superb this is when I look back a decade when an away win was as common as rocking horse s**t.
Lloris was outstanding. The midfield was complete and functional.
Bentaleb deserves the credit (along with his coach). His baptism of fire is starting to make sense. Throw him in, let him adapt and mature game to game and he'll find his feet with relative ease when asked to play in a more comfortable role. Nabil gave us vision and composure in offensive positions and worked a shift when called upon to hold back.
Kaboul was immense, treating us to only the single injury scare but completing the game and giving the team that added solidity at the back. You forget how important he is until he plays. Reads the game so well but is able to back it up with nicking the ball away from opposing players. Yet I can't seem to shake the Ledley Kings off him. Almost like I know he'll be unavailable again soon.
It hurts my head to think how fragile and injury prone he is. Beast of a player and alongside Vertonghen, our best centre-pairing. Well, best theoretical centre-pairing as we've been sat here waiting for this combination for an absolute age.
Adebayor just can't stop eating up the goals, his hunger is insatiable. We need this for every single remaining game.
Obviously, this is just the one game. It was only Newcastle who got smashed 3-0 by Sunderland last time out. The formation or rather the manner in which we transitioned from one area to the next still needs to be perfected - if this is the way Sherwood will line us up again. We might see one of the midfielders sacrificed for another forward or Eriksen next time round (especially for home games). Or (depending on the quality of the opposing side) not include a holding player. The wide players being the positions most likely to see change.
I was unsure of Sherwood's persistence with Bentaleb and the exclusion of a DM/holding player but the latter might have been fitness related. But it's more than just holding. By holding, others are given license to roam. Capoue will be replaced with Sandro (once available, you would expect). This will give us the coverage in the middle we'll need to face up against the bigger teams - the 'top four', where our form hasn't been great.
Dembele is so much better in a more offensive role than he is anchored way back in midfield, retaining possession which means players can move into positions to supplement the attack. It's strange but it still feels like he could be our kingpin yet we have far too many players vying for that responsibility. We - Mousa included - have to be adaptable and he has to believe he can influence the game.
Paulinho is superb with ball at feet and more so when receiving it in and around the box, especially when attacking but doesn't do enough deeper. Which isn't a problem as long as we seek to maximise him further forward.
The flanks? Was there a touch of the inverted style for our wingers? It was not as congested as the previous variant. Perhaps this time the midfield was better suited to hold back for players to cut in and attack. We shouldn't however understate the important of pulling the midfield wide to create more space and for that we need to have our wide players hug the touchline, which will lead to the players central having more space to run at. At times there was too many bodies in there. Not congested enough to bring it all to a stand still. With the players we possess, we'll create even more goal scoring opportunities if we fix this up.
Highly enjoyable and hugely satisfying victory. Hope Sherwood persists with evolving the shape and balance to allow for continuity for the players to settle into.
Nice to be chasing top four rather than protecting it. If you know what I mean. That brutal month in March will be the true test, one that we won't be able to reset if we fail.