Last week I wondered, should Tottenham find themselves locked in a scoreless draw with visiting Newcastle at halftime today, whether manager Andre Villas-Boas would abandon his 4-2-3-1 formation in favor of the attacking 4-4-2 lineup many supporters have been clamoring for against ostensibly lesser squads.
With Spurs down 1-0 and substitute striker Jermain Defoe having hopped off the bench with Aaron Lennon to warm up five minutes before halftime, it indeed looked as if AVB might make this tactical switch. Instead, AVB made two like-for-like substitutions at the break, putting on Sandro for Moussa Dembele and Younes Kaboul for Vlad Chiriches (the latter change forced by a bloody nose suffered by the Romanian central defender).
Spurs did come out looking revitalized in the second half and fully grabbed the momentum. Sandro was a marked improvement over Dembele, who continues to mystify with his lack of consistency. Fullback Kyle Walker did well in coming forward to link up with the attack. Even the service-starved Roberto Soldado managed to get off some shots, albeit mostly on headers. But Newcastle keeper Tim Krul rose to the occasion and was the clear Man of the Match in valiantly preserving the 1-0 scoreline for Newcastle. It was Tottenham's second loss in its last three home matches.
AVB's starting XI is a week-to-week affair as his club searches for its identity. Today, he went with Sigurdsson on the left and Eriksen in the middle, two players who've linked up well at times. Andros Townsend, not Lennon, was on the right. Coming off one of his finest seasons in 2012-13, Lennon might feel unlucky in slipping down a rung after an early season injury, coupled with some bright flashes from the erratic Townsend.
But the real story was backup Brad Friedel starting for Hugo Lloris. A week after controversially leaving Lloris in to finish the match following a nasty head collision with Everton's Romelu Lukaku -- and defiantly calling out those in the media who criticized his decision to do so -- AVB was advised by his staff to keep his No.1 keeper on the bench. Wayne Diesel, the club's head of medical services, reported: "We've continued to monitor Hugo all week and after discussions, Andre and the medical department have agreed to afford the player a couple more days rest. Hugo is naturally disappointed as he was keen to return to action. However, we feel this decision is in the player's best interest." This will only intensify the examination of the club's handling of things at Goodison Park last week.
With all the armchair speculation about Spurs needing two forwards to attack teams that come parking the bus at White Hart Lane, it was Newcastle who came into the match with a 4-4-2 formation and an attacking mindset. Alan Pardew had his men ready to exploit the 42-year-old Friedel's lack of mobility, as well as Michael Dawson's lack of pace on the back line. In the 10th minute, Vlad Chiriches had to race back to thwart a chance for Loic Remy. But two minutes later, the Romanian was at fault when he made a heavy pass to Paulinho, who lost the ball to Newcastle's Yoan Gouffran. Chiriches compounded the error by being slow to track back as Remy made a run forward, and Gouffran sent a perfect through ball to the in-form striker. Lloris's absence loomed large as Friedel attempted to come out to challenge Remy but was no match for the French international, who easily found his way past the American and netted for the opening score.
Speed and tactics almost produced another first-half goal for Newcastle, as Shola Ameobi sneaked through the back line and put another ball past Friedel, but the play was ruled offside -- a close call but a correct one. The visitors went to halftime as the better side and Spurs were fortunate to be down only one goal.
Tottenham came out ablaze in the second half like a quality squad should when challenged. Spurs gave themselves a number of scoring chances, yet each time Krul rose to the occasion. He took over the match shortly after the restart when he blocked a sitter from Eriksen with his left foot and, a few minutes later, stopped Eriksen's curling free kick with his right hand. The on-rushing Kaboul sent the rebound straight at Krul and saw the resulting loose ball cleared off the line by Remy.
Pardew recognized the sea change and acted, sending on midfielder Vurnon Anita for forward Shola Ameobi in the 60th. Spurs did go to a 4-4-2 when Defoe came on for Sigurdsson in the 69th.
Tottenham continued to force the action. Paulinho came close in the 82nd only to be denied by the Dutch keeper, and Jan Vertonghen got his head on a corner in the 84th but hit the woodwork. In the end, this might not have been about tactics as much as it was about a lack of polish on the attacking end. Spurs took 31 shots and forced 14 saves out of Krul, but elite teams eventually find the back after so many golden opportunities.
Spurs might end up being a very good Cup team, but they are not among the elite in the Premier League, at least not yet. In this transition season, they're a possession-oriented squad with little margin for error, one that has yet to prove it can come from behind in a match. (All three of Tottenham's losses have come after surrendering the opening goal.) Its European ventures continue to take a toll under AVB, with seven of Spurs' last eight losses coming after Thursday night Europa League matches. Most alarmingly, they've only won three league matches via open-play goals.
With Manchester United's defeat of Arsenal, Tottenham's home loss proved to be the difference between rising to third in the table and sinking to seventh. Manchester City keeps bleeding points on the road yet lurks a point behind in eighth. With tough matches against both Manchester clubs in the next two weeks, Spurs have yet to find even one player to counter the many attacking threats that bless the United and City squads. We'll know more about Tottenham's place in this Premier League season after December 1.
Going forward: If Sandro can stay fit, he's the man best suited to play in front of AVB's high line and afford Paulinho the chance to shine in a box-to-box role. I like Lewis Holtby's spark, but I like Eriksen better as an attacking midfielder. Lennon still strikes me as the better option on the right wing; Townsend and his left foot might be more useful to this team on the left. Or after Erik Lamela's break-out performance in the Europa League against Sherriff Tiraspol (admittedly lower-level opposition) -- in which he scored his first goal for the club, set up another by drawing a penalty, and notched 11 successful dribbles -- might he ultimately prove to be the expensive and exotic antidote for Tottenham's final-third blues?