Sometimes a goalless draw is a dismal bore. Other times it can inspire 1,500 words.
Tottenham's away match at Everton on Sunday had the makings of a wide-open affair. Everton is a very solid team and has benefited from the form of Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku, who had tallied 5 goals over the club's last 5 league matches. Former Wigan manager Roberto Martinez plays an attacking style, and he was bound to go for it with the likes of Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman, who comprise one of the Premier League's finest pair of attacking fullbacks.
But Tottenham came out owning the first 30 minutes with crisp ball movement that kept the action in the Everton half of the field. Jan Vertonghen, again playing at left back instead of his favored center half position, turned in a Man of the Match performance and out-Bainesed Baines. Sandro started in his defensive mid role just in front of manager Andre Villas-Boas' high line and looked much better than he did in his disappointing performance against Hull last week. The Brazilian even took the game's initial shot on goal, which would give him more shots on target than striker Roberto Soldado had for the match--more on this later.
Spurs once again owned the center of the pitch, and when Everton managed to gain possession, Tottenham pressed the ball as impressively as they have all season. The pairings of Vertonghen/Aaron Lennon on the left and Kyle Walker/Andros Townsend on the right kept Baines and Coleman pinned back for most of the match. On the rare attacking moments for the hosts, center halves Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches did no wrong. Chiriches made an especially well-timed tackle on Kevin Mirallas in the second half to deny a clear shot on goal.
But as the glass-half-full crowd enjoyed the work rate, those with half-empty glasses saw a Spurs attack that yet again failed to translate possession into scoring opportunities. Summer signee Paulinho serves as a microcosm; he's solid in his box-to-box play and a key to AVB's ball-control tactics, but his timing is still out of sync on the attacking end. Lewis Holtby, who seems to have supplanted Christian Eriksen in the no. 10 role for the time being, showed his usual hustle in directing what passed for an attack. But he and his mates spent a lot of time fumbling around in their pockets looking in vain for the key to unlock the Everton back line.
I watched the match with the New York Spurs supporters club at O'Casey's in midtown Manhattan, where there was some debate on the merits of having Lennon and Townsend playing as inverted wingers. It's disappointing to see each player waste his considerable pace on runs toward the goal line, only to pull it back to his good foot as the opponents catch up. While Townsend himself is certainly not shy in shooting (five taken on Sunday to increase his league-leading total), to say he has yet to establish himself as a consistent scorer is an understatement. Even with Townsend's moments of electricity, I still haven't seen enough out of him to justify kicking the veteran right-sider Lennon, who's coming off a fine season, to the other side of the pitch. Lennon -- a personal favorite as a speedy winger who tracks back, but one not necessarily known for his goal output or his final touch -- is more easily neutralized on the left. AVB seems to prefer this inverted system, and as one veteran and knowledgeable fan pointed out, it follows the current trend in European football. But Lennon and Townsend are no Ronaldo and Bale, and when a touchline tandem produces no goals and no service to the team's 26-million-pound striker, one has to wonder about the wisdom. Could we not see what Townsend can do in Gareth's old position? Is it too early to start singing "Aaron Lennon, he plays on the right?"
Everton came out better in the second half and were propelled by the 63rd-minute introductions of Ross Barkley and Gerard Deulofeu. Meanwhile, AVB's like-for-like subs of Moussa Dembele for Sandro and Gylfi Sigurdsson for Aaron Lennon before the 70th minute did little to inject life into Tottenham, and Sandro's absence was almost immediately felt. The situation on the left remains a point of contention among Tottenham supporters. Sigurdsson, who did put a decent attempt on American keeper Tim Howard's net, possesses the best shot of any winger on the team. But Gylfi brings little width to the attack, and whenever he enjoys a run in the starting XI, it's not long before supporters start calling for a pacier winger like Lennon. Between them, they make up two halves of the perfect player for AVB's system.
Now a quarter-way through the season, it's officially not too early to ask questions of Soldado. The man who displayed a brilliant touch on volleys in La Liga is not yet producing goals in the Premier League, nor does he offer the hold-up play Emanuel Adebayor can. At his best, the all-but-banished Adebayor might be the best striker for the club, but that's purely theoretical at this point.
But the biggest talking point to come out of the match is how AVB handled a second-half head injury to Hugo Lloris. Spurs will hope he suffers no long-term effects from being knocked unconscious in the 77th minute. The world-class "sweeper keeper" came out to grab a speculative long ball into the box and collided head-on with Lukaku's knee. I think the Everton striker might have made a more diligent attempt to avoid the collision, and he was issued a yellow card from referee Kevin Friend. The match was halted for a good five minutes as a stretcher was summoned for Lloris. But the French national waved it off and was animated in convincing the training staff, captain Michael Dawson, and other concerned teammates to allow him to stay on the pitch. Even Friend seemed to get involved in vetting Lloris's ability to continue.
Ultimately, Lukaku was the one who came off the field because of the collision, while Lloris stayed on and came up big. He palmed away a corner from Baines and just seconds later charged aggressively to his left to block a cross from Deulofeu as Nikica Jelavic lurked in the six-yard area. It was a nervy time for Tottenham as Everton was on the front foot and nine minutes were eventually added on to regulation. But Spurs regained their spark and went off the better side at the final whistle. The hosts managed only one shot on target for the entire match to Tottenham's six.
Afterward, AVB would reveal Lloris had no memory of the collision. "The medical department was giving me signs that the player couldn't carry on, because he couldn't remember where he was," Villas-Boas said after the match. "But he was quite focused and determined to continue, so when you see this kind of assertiveness it means he is able to carry on, and that is why it was my call to delay the substitution."
On Monday, the club confirmed "Hugo Lloris underwent a precautionary CT scan and was given the all-clear and travelled back to London last night."
Given the increasing awareness of the long-term effects of sports-related brain trauma, AVB and the Tottenham staff find themselves the subject of widespread criticism after the incident. On the one hand, it seems pretty clear to this layperson that a player who doesn't have a clear sense of his surroundings should come off after a head injury. On the other hand, it appeared nothing less than police restraint was going to remove Lloris from the pitch. It was a dramatic and awkward sequence, and some of the Goodison Park supporters didn't necessarily acquit themselves in booing Lloris during the inconvenient delay. While I think AVB made the wrong decision, I can understand his dilemma in those confusing moments.
Denied the winning goal that would've lifted them into second place outright, Spurs nevertheless earned a hard-earned point that sees them tied on points for second but fourth on goal differential. (Get used to that qualifier.) After a quarter of the season, this is the story of Spurs: 9 goals for, 5 goals against. The first number is sad; the second, stellar. AVB's attack will need to figure out how to close the deal. After a home match with Newcastle, Spurs are away to Manchester City (with their +17 goal differential) and then back home to United, who are in danger of becoming Manchester's "other" team yet still boast the likes of Rooney and Van Persie in their attack.
So if next week's match is scoreless at the half and the White Hart Lane crowd grows restless again, might we see a 4-4-2?