This one goes down as winning ugly.
Tottenham's 1-0 win over Hull City at White Hart Lane Sunday doesn't send one searching for superlatives. Save for one five-minute sequence in the first half, the possession-dominant Spurs looked uninspired on the attack but still emerged with three points thanks to a controversial penalty converted by Roberto Soldado in the 80th minute.
On a squad for which the starting XI is a week-to-week story, the interesting choice Sunday was manager Andre Villas-Boas's selection of Lewis Holtby for a second consecutive league start over Christian Eriksen. After his Tottenham debut last month, Eriksen looked to have established himself as the team's preferred no. 10. But his only start since the West Ham debacle came in the Europa League on Thursday in Transnistria, a state that technically doesn't exist.
Upon their club's return from the Twilight Zone, supporters were happy to see Aaron Lennon on the pitch at kickoff. This was supposed to be the match when having two speedy wingers in Lennon and Andros Townsend would spread out and open up the opposition. But Lennon didn't really shine, and although Townsend led his club with 8 successful take-ons out of the 9 he attempted against Hull, this wasn't a headline-making performance by Spurs' new sensation, either. (The media might let him score a league goal on purpose before pondering whether he's the next Gareth Bale.) Townsend nevertheless will be remembered fondly for demanding to return to the pitch after taking a scary spill into the photographer's pit and having a stretcher summoned for him as Spurs, down a man and out of substitutions, clung to the lead.
Spurs again lined up with Sandro in midfield and newbie Vlad Chiriches paired with Michael Dawson as the center halves. Sandro was clearly off his game and yielded possession a number of times. AVB's hand was forced and he brought on Moussa Dembele for Sandro after halftime. (It remains to be seen if Dembele will ever get a day off.) Chiriches looked good coming forward but, like Dawson, he isn't the fleetest of foot. This tandem might be best avoided against the more proficient attacking teams, and it probably will be when Danny Rose returns.
Chiriches' presence did allow AVB to take advantage of Jan Vertonghen's versatility on the left in Rose's absence. Overall, Jan hasn't looked quite as confident as he did last season, and he was largely quiet Sunday. But he did create the game-deciding penalty when his attempted cross in the 79th minute deflected off Ahmed Elmohamady's leg and then struck the defender's hand. Referee Michael Oliver, who had denied a legitimate penalty cry from Hull in the first half when Kyle Walker looked to have fouled his man in the box, pointed to the spot. Spurs striker Soldado went low-left on keeper Steve Harper for his fourth goal of the season, his third on penalties. It was a harsh call on Elmohamady, whose greatest sin on the play might have been not being able to momentarily remove his arms from his body. But Spurs supporters will argue one or two other teams in London benefit from such calls now and then.
Picking my Man of the Match is a hard task today. I thought Holtby was the best player on the field in the first half, but he faded a bit in the second and was replaced in the 60-minute mark. Former Tottenham midfielder Tom Huddlestone had some good battles with Holtby in the middle and deserves sentimental consideration, but he leaves the Lane with nothing but another day's growth of hair. Soldado's goal means he has now scored 44 percent of his club's underwhelming season tally of 9 -- a total equal to that of 15th-place Fulham -- but I can't say he had a MOTM performance. Although Hull supporters might cynically point to Michael Oliver as being most deserving, I'm going to give it to Kyle Walker for posing a two-way threat while completing 72 passes at a 90% accuracy rate.
Spurs fans have Walker on a short leash, and he and the rest of the squad heard it from the crowd at White Hart Lane, where the atmosphere was less than electric. AVB was moved to give his men an us-against-the-world speech at the half, telling them "We need to do it on our own." Afterward, he called out the home fans: "[The players] did it on themselves. We looked like the away team today. We played in a very difficult atmosphere with almost no support coming. We have a wonderful set of fans, but I'm pretty sure that they can do better. And they know that they can do better. Away from home, their support has been absolutely amazing. We play with no fear, with full confidence. And that's why we've beaten all of the [club] records away from home last season. And I think we need to bring this atmosphere into White Hart Lane. We need them to move through games like this and not that negativeness that was in the stadium today."
Going after the fans is almost always a losing proposition in any sport, but give AVB some points for his honesty. Pensiveness can sometimes replace passion at the Lane of late. With the win, Spurs supporters find themselves in a familiar position: seeing their club 4th in the table yet lacking confidence of that position sticking. Ball control, a staunch defense, and some early-season fortune have propelled Spurs to their current spot. But the team has not looked the same since halftime of the Chelsea match, and AVB's attackers have yet to truly click in this first post-Bale season.
The symbiosis between club and supporters is officially an issue now, one that will be talked about for the rest of the season. It's also a chicken-and-egg scenario. Spurs will need their fans to spur them on, but the club will need to have more goals to show for their overwhelming possession numbers before everyone will buy in.