After consecutive defeats to Liverpool and Fulham, Tottenham’s grip on fourth place was loosening. With Arsenal only four points behind having played a game less, a good result was vital for the North Londoners.
Swansea, however, had little to play for. A place in the Europa League has already been confirmed thanks to their League Cup victory, and they are well clear of the relegation zone.
With this in mind, Villas-Boas’ side went into the game as strong favourites. Spurs were also boosted by the return of Aaron Lennon, who provides much-needed balance in the midfield. Elsewhere, Jermain Defoe was only given a place on the subs bench as Emmanuel Adebayor got the nod up front, whilst Kyle Naughton was chosen ahead of Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
The big team news, however, was the absence of Hugo Lloris. The Frenchman has been excellent this season and his speed off the line has allowed Tottenham to play the high defensive line which AVB desires. Brad Friedel is an excellent shot-stopper but, at 41, does not possess the same agility or ability to read the game.
For Swansea, Michael Laudrup played Jonathan de Guzman in a slightly deeper role this week, as Wayne Routledge was picked at the head of the midfield 3.
As has been the case in recent months, Gareth Bale started in a central position, drifting around behind Adebayor. Whilst this meant that Sigurdsson was nominally employed as a left-winger, the two did interchange regularly in a first-half dominated by two individuals.
The first goal came in the 7th minute after Vertonghen intercepted a wayward pass, found Bale and continued his surge forward. In his free role, Bale has the license to drop deep and turn with the ball and this is exactly what he did here. With Vertonghen travelling at full speed, the Swansea midfield and defence simply couldn’t keep up as he powered into the penalty box. Bale’s run away from goal had dragged Williams out of position and his chipped through ball was perfect. For a defender, the Belgian’s finish was remarkably assured.
It is hard to defend a pass as incisive as this one, but the finger of blame may be pointed towards Dwight Tiendalli. Sigurdsson was not in a dangerous position and did not need marking, so Tiendalli was free to move inside. His defenders were out of position and struggling to track the run and he should really have moved into a covering position. He eventually did, but it was far too late.
The goal seemed to liberate Spurs and they dominated for the majority of the first half. Scott Parker was staying very tight to Routledge and the Swans were unable to link the midfield with the attack whilst Bale continued to drop deep and help his side maintain possession and control the tempo.
Swansea were pressing the Spurs midfield but were leaving a lot of space behind their defence. Consequently, quick attacks were looking very promising for Villas-Boas’ side. Adebayor was put through on goal because of this and should have done much better.
If the first goal was hard to defend, the second was impossible. After some sloppy passing from the Swans, Vertonghen found Bale on the edge of the box. The speed with which the Welshman controlled the ball and blasted it into the top corner was phenomenal. Bale had not even been afforded that much space. It was simply another remarkable piece of skill which – in this writer’s opinion at least – proves he is the best player in the Premier League.
Frustratingly for Swansea fans, their team finally started playing at this point. Tottenham lost all momentum after going two goals ahead and Britton and Routledge started to see more and more of the ball.
They were mostly threatening down the right-hand side though, where Tiendalli was pushing round the outside of Naughton as Dyer tucked inside. Brendan Rodgers recently spoke of the ‘7½’ role and Dyer kept popping up in this position between Naughton and Vertonghen.
This is how Swansea created their best chance of the half. Tiendalli surged down the wing and delivered a great cross for Dyer, who somehow hit the bar from only a few yards out. It was a huge opening and was indicative of the changing tide of the encounter.
The second-half continued on from the first. Swansea pressed and controlled the ball, looking increasingly threatening down the right-hand side. Laudrup’s side are normally very penetrative down the left, too, but Hernandez and Davies had little joy throughout the game as Lennon and Walker marshalled them far more effectively than Naughton and Sigurdsson were doing on the Tottenham left.
The match now settled into a pattern. Swansea were allowed much of the ball in front of the Tottenham box while Spurs were content to sit deep and break through the pace of Bale and Defoe, who had come on for Adebayor.
Although Swansea were not overly penetrative, the pressure told as Michu rose highest to head home an out-swinging corner. For a team renowned for their short passing game, it was noticeable that they looked most dangerous from crosses into the box.
The goal gave the home side added confidence and Tottenham sat deeper and deeper. A chance was going to come and in the last minute it did: only a wonderful Bale block prevented a stoppage-time equaliser and Spurs were able to hold on.
It was a strange but exciting game. AVB will be delighted with his side’s start and the way they controlled the game in the opening 20 minutes. After Bale’s goal, however, they sacrificed this control and dropped deeper and deeper. This was always a dangerous move and when Michu pulled one back Swansea had all the momentum and could easily have scored another.
In the end, it was only excellent defensive performances from centre-backs Dawson and the imperious Vertonghen which prevented Swansea threading those incisive through-balls in between the Spurs back-line . Vertonghen, in particular, made countless interceptions at crucial moments.
At the other end, Bale was again magnificent. The Swansea defence simply couldn’t get hold of him and his block at the end was demonstrative of another all-round wonderful performance.
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