Postecoglou and Spurs double down in Villa defeat but can and should they stick to their guns?

Dave Tickner
Ange Postecoglou claps Spurs fans after a 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa.
Ange Postecoglou claps Spurs fans after defeat to Villa.

What a curious parable Tottenham’s season has become.

Rare enough for a team’s season to unravel as spectacularly, quickly and utterly as Tottenham’s has done over the last three weeks. Rarer still for that to occur against a backdrop of continued praise and backslapping.

The bald facts now state that Spurs, after a 10-game unbeaten start, have taken the lead in and subsequently lost three straight games. It’s an abysmal statistic that no amount of intent or adherence to principles or excitement should mask. They travel to Manchester City next week, with four straight defeats therefore now a near certainty to tee up a derby against West Ham that the visitors rarely require much encouragement to get stuck into.

This could get much, much worse for Spurs – now outside the top four and replaced by today’s victors – before it gets any better.

But at the same time, it absolutely should once again get better. This was a maddening, frustrating defeat. The apparent naivety of the all-out attack tactics on the one hand countered by the fact that a little more composure really could have changed everything.

There is, of course, mitigation in the injury crisis that has overwhelmed a small and shallow squad. There is undeniable encouragement in the endeavours of some fringe players, most notably here Giovani Lo Celso who performed admirably on his first Premier League start since Nuno Espirito Santo was manager.

Still, though. Three 1-0 leads. Three painful and very silly defeats. It’s genuinely hard to know what Spurs should do next. Angeball, like cricket’s Bazball, is a philosophy that really requires a total commitment: to acknowledge any need for pragmatism at all is to burst the bubble and destroy the illusion. Playing fearlessly requires an environment doubt cannot be permitted to permeate.

But really, can and should Spurs just stick to it with such blind, cultish commitment? Yes, it’s unfortunate that both your starting centre-backs are unavailable. Most teams would not respond to such a setback by simply picking no centre-backs at all. Yes, it’s unfortunate that your best holding midfielder is unavailable. Most teams would not respond to such a setback by simply picking no holding midfielder at all.

For Postecoglou and Spurs, this was at least a defeat on their own front-foot terms after the meek and sludgy eventual capitulation after 87 minutes of backs-to-the-wall grimness at Wolves. There are more positives here than from that day. There were at least here signs of players furthering their cause.

But ultimately it’s another painful, largely self-inflicted and entirely avoidable defeat. They can’t keep getting praised for the football – and some of it today was once again breathtaking – when the results are no longer there.

We also have to take care not to be entirely outcome oriented here. This precise Spurs performance was certainly one that, on a different day, delivers a famous win. For all the apparent madness of a four full-back defence and a starting midfield built entirely of attack-minded players, Spurs played enough football in the first half to have won half-a-dozen matches.

But they didn’t. And given Villa’s largely underwhelming display, it’s equally plausible that a slightly more take-your-medicine team selection that includes the hugely experienced centre-back and holding midfielder who sat on the bench would also have delivered the three points.

What was clear was that when Villa snatched an undeserved but unsurprising equaliser on the stroke of half-time, you already sensed how the second half would pan out.

You can’t call it bad luck when it keeps happening. You specifically can’t call it bad luck when your team containing zero centre-backs concedes the two precise types of goal centre-backs were put on this earth to prevent.

Villa’s first was a wonderful free-kick delivery from Douglas Luiz in first-half stoppage time. It is doubtful indeed whether the presence of Eric Dier would have made a tangible difference to Pau Torres thumping home a header. But Dier would at least have seen such free-kicks plenty of times before and at least done something to try and prevent it.

The second goal was embarrassing for the ease with which a simple one-two found Ollie Watkins between and then beyond Spurs’ two centre-full-backs to finish.

As with the defeats to Chelsea and Wolves, one was left with the striking impression that however frustrating the defeat was for Spurs they were if anything lucky their opponents had shown so little aptitude for the seemingly straightforward task of breaching a defence that was barely there. A repeat of the four full-backs trick at the Etihad next week could easily bring back memories of St James’ Park earlier in the year.

Villa have been superb this year and were certainly better in the second half. But this really wasn’t a marked improvement on any of their recent away performances, which have not matched their Villa Park efforts. At times in the first half they were overwhelmed, and the ease with which they scored the two goals left one puzzling at their failure to replicate such seemingly easy tasks while also inevitably noting just how much harder it appeared for Spurs to find their own way past a more orthodox and organised backline.

Even in a first half that almost entirely passed them by in a blur of white shirts, Villa had a Pau Torres goal, a glaring Pau Torres miss and a narrow offside goal from Ollie Watkins to show for it.

For Chelsea, Wolves and now Villa these have been hugely important wins. But none of those teams will have left those games feeling this was their one of their best performances of the season.

Spurs have become once again what we always feared they might if injuries and suspensions bit: a very easy team to play against. They are not just losing games now; they are losing them to teams who aren’t even playing that well.

The results are also now starting to show one obvious, inevitable fact that had previously been masked: they really miss Harry Kane.

Obvious point is obvious, because he’s the best striker in the world. But there was a growing view that Angeball’s undoubted ability to cover for his absence a bit was in fact making his absence irrelevant.

It never really stood up. Spurs haven’t really scored the goals their football has merited all season. Only in a 5-2 win over Burnley have they scored more than twice in a game. Their finishing almost cost them against Sheffield United, Liverpool and Luton. It is really costing them now.

And yet. While some pragmatism is surely necessary – and they really do need to pick a team at the Etihad next week with at least an eye on avoiding disaster – Spurs do also need to hold their nerve. After City they will at least have Cristian Romero back. Suddenly they will be able to pick three of their first-choice back four.

Before the Chelsea collapse, Spurs’ defence had been one of the biggest surprises of the season. Even here, Pedro Porro’s performance as a right-quarterback was of immense quality. He’s been one of the biggest surprises of the season anywhere.

Postecoglou remains a coach capable of building a Spurs team we haven’t seen for years. We knew they lacked the squad to do anything extraordinary this season. They were never quite as good as things looked in those first 10 games; they are not as bad as things look now.

And even ‘bad as things look now’ is still four points off top spot after 13 games.

For Villa, their startling 2023 continues. They will play far better than this and lose against far worse teams, but their consistency across the calendar year has been extraordinary. Suddenly they are not only in the top four but just two points off top spot.

We’ll find out more about Villa over an upcoming fortnight featuring games against Manchester City and Arsenal but they have been one of the stories of the year. They possess in Ollie Watkins a proper striker and in Douglas Luiz and John McGinn a midfield that gives them a degree of control more often than not.

The wild nature of the first half here in particular was not to their liking, but they are an admirable side, and the manner with which they stuck to the task to withstand and ultimately tame Spurs’ whirlwind spoke of tenacity and football intelligence that their hosts do not currently possess.

Because for all the tactical oddity and bombast of this Spurs team, this was a game defined by decisions in the final third. Villa twice managed to make the correct decisions at the correct time on an afternoon when Son Heung-min, Brennan Johnson and Bryan Gil so often undid so much good work with a commitment to making the wrong decisions when it really mattered.