SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND – Sooner or later, people are going to have to start taking Andre Villas-Boas seriously again. His difficulties at Chelsea led many to write him off as a bluffer but at Tottenham he has begun to fashion a very fine team indeed. In an odd season in which no team has played with any real consistency, Tottenham finds itself only six points behind Manchester City in second.
The contrast between Tottenham's performance at the Stadium of Light and that of Manchester City three days earlier was clear. City had threatened to dominate early on but, having been thwarted, quickly lost its rhythm and looked persistently vulnerable to Sunderland's counter-attacks. Its midfield always plays narrow and as soon as Sunderland got the ball wide, it was able to exert pressure on the City full-backs. While Roberto Mancini insisted Sunderland had been "lucky", the truth was that his side, after the first 20 minutes or so, never looked like taking control and could easily have conceded further goals on the counter-attack.
Tottenham, though, had established control by around the 20th minute, and in the 20 minutes that followed barely allowed Sunderland out of its half. Given Spurs played a 4-4-2, that was control based less on power through midfield, as is often the case, than on its pressing, with the back four playing so high and squeezing so aggressively that Sunderland's forwards were never able to settle, never able to measure a pass.
Football being the perverse game that it is, it was Sunderland who then took the lead from a set play. Tottenham could have been rattled - and certainly it's easy to imagine earlier incarnations of the side, when the club was a byword for mental fragility - but instead Spurs kept doing what it had had been doing. Within six minutes of the restart the pressure told and it had a lead it deserved and never really looked like relinquishing.
As Sunderland piled men into the box and slung in cross after cross late on, it was notable how dominant goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was, coming for crosses and punching clear, seemingly unworried by Sunderland's occasional physicality. There had been concerns when he was first signed as to whether he would be able to stand up to the aggression of the Premier League . It's said that in the early weeks of the season, when Brad Friedel was still first choice, that the French number one worked specifically in training on dealing with crosses. If that ever was a weakness it certainly isn't now.
But Lloris also fulfills another vital function. There was a slight sense of bewilderment when he was signed, given that Friedel was in such fine form; bringing in an additional top-class keeper seemed only likely to lead to strife as they squabbled for one place in the team. The desire to sign him was put down by the fact that Friedel is 42 and, although he has just signed a new contract, is clearly edging to the end of his career.
Lloris, though, brings an additional benefit. Friedel, as so many of the US school of goalkeeping are, is essentially a line keeper. He prefers to stay back and react to shots. There's nothing wrong with that but if a team is to play with a high line, as Spurs do, it needs a keeper who is prepared to leave his box and sweep up in the space behind the back four. That is Lloris's natural game, and he is technically adept with his feet. Since he has displaced Friedel, it's been noticeable that Spurs have played with a higher line. That in turn has allowed the midfield to play higher and that has made it easier for the likes of Mousa Dembele, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon -- and Clint Dempsey, if he can ever establish himself in the side -- to get forward and offer an attacking threat. Early in the season there had been a tendency for Jermain Defoe, particularly when he played as a lone forward, to become isolated; counter-intuitively the solution to that has been to change the goalkeeper.
As players return from injury -- Scott Parker, last season's player of the year, is just coming back to fitness after being injured in the Euros, while Younes Kaboul, probably Tottenham's best defender last season, should return in January having not played at all this season -- there is no reason for Tottenham not to go from strength to strength. What will frustrate it is how many points have been squandered this season. It has dropped nine points to goals conceded in the final ten minutes of games while, as is so often the case, by conducting its transfer business so late in the window, there was a sense that the first three games of the season - in which Spurs picked up just two points - were almost written off.
As others have faltered, Spurs have narrowed the gap. Many doubted the club's wisdom in getting rid of Harry Redknapp after a fourth-placed finish. Villas-Boas looks on track to at least emulate that success -- if not exceed it.