It wasn’t perfect from Tottenham but it was better from Jose Mourinho’s side, although ‘better’ is a relative word after such a horrendous week.
After a week without passion, fight and any real togetherness in his squad, Mourinho had to pick a team that he believed would put the required effort in and play for each other and for him.
His hand was forced in some circumstances but in others the intention was clear. Putting together a back four with an average age of 23 and naming two 16-year-olds on the bench rather than some senior first team players said it all.
Harry Winks and Matt Doherty found themselves out of the squad entirely, along with the injured Son Heung-min and suspended Erik Lamela. Toby Alderweireld and Serge Aurier were both unavailable due to illness.
football.london reported on Sunday that the illness for both players was not though to be serious and they were still expected to be available for international duty. Alderweireld was photographed arriving at the Belgium camp the next morning.
Gareth Bale also found himself back on the bench in a Premier League match, something that hasn’t happened to him since his return to form at West Ham last month.
Strangely on Sunday night, the Welshman, as well as Eric Dier and teenagers Alfie Devine and Dane Scarlett, never appeared to warm up down the touchline at any point during the match at Villa Park.
Dele Alli and the three substitutes who came on – Ben Davies, Steven Bergwijn and Moussa Sissoko – all were seen throughout both halves going through their paces on the touchline in front of the press.
While most outfield substitutes do normally warm-up during games the fact that four of them, including the two 16-year-olds didn’t, means it was unlikely to have too much of a deeper meaning.
However, the only reason the absence down the touchline stands out slightly for Bale is that during the period when he was struggling to get Premier League minutes, he wasn’t seen warming up at times during those games and again on Sunday night he was left completely unused by Mourinho.
In terms of substitutes and those out of the team in general, Hugo Lloris had made a big point on Thursday night of hitting out at those players who he felt were complaining when out of the side rather than supporting their team-mates.
Mourinho used the presence of Scarlett and Devine to make his own point about that lack of desire to help the team.
“My thinking [with the team selection] was we need angry people, we need fresh and positive feelings,” he said.
“We need kids on the bench that live a dream, kids that if you play them 10 seconds, they play them like the last seconds of their career. I need people on the pitch that I know the match is really important for them. Tanganga and Rodon are these kind of players.
“This kind of positivity is something that the team needed. I think it was good. The two best defenders on our team were Harry Kane and Vinicius.
“In the first half [Villa] didn’t have a shot. In the second half of course there is always a corner, always a shot, always a second ball but when you start defending with your two strikers, the team is solid and in control. So we had lots of positive things.
“Of course I understand, they deserve this individual praise. Crazy performance by Lucas, Harry, Pierre – we had some fantastic individual performances but for me this is the victory of the dressing room, the victory of their spirit, the victory of the group that felt ashamed of what happened in the last week.
“To be ashamed I always think is a man’s reaction. Don’t care, don’t give a (swears) is not for men. To be ashamed is a man’s reaction which they had and I’m very happy for them.”
That both of Tottenham’s goals came through a desire to win the ball back – Lucas Moura for the first and Tanguy Ndombele for the second – will also have pleased Mourinho but he had to question one thing.
“I’m very happy with the result, the performance, the attitude. I’m not happy with the feeling that if you did it tonight, why you didn’t do it 48 hours ago? That match on Thursday will be a scar for a long time,” he admitted to football.london.
“It’s not going to heal just because we won, but total credit to the players. They were a team. They fought together. They put in the game that honesty, that dignity that football players should, should put in every match.
“I think the next challenge for this team is to have a performance like this one, not as a reaction to a bad result or a couple of bad results, but to have this reaction, this attitude, this collective state of soul to have these every game.
“We are going to lose matches, we are going to play bad, but to have these human qualities in every match is the next challenge for the team.”
Lucas Moura and the strike duo
Lucas Moura has been a rare beacon of light during a tough week for Tottenham Hotspur and it was the Brazilian who inspired the team back to winning ways at Villa Park.
One thing you can never fault the 28-year-old for is his workrate and positivity. His enjoyment of the game is infectious and Spurs’ players needed someone to put a smile back on their faces after the week from hell, particularly knowing their own culpability for it.
Lucas could run forever and for a Tottenham team that plays on the counter, he provides the thrust they need.
What’s been key for the Brazilian in the past month is that he’s improved one area of his game that was lacking, his end product in the Premier League.
He has enjoyed himself in the Europa League with five goals and two assists this season but the higher standard of the Premier League was proving an obstacle.
From the start of the season in September, all the way up until last month, he had one goal – scored in September – to his name and no assists.
However, the shift to a more central role and plenty of backing from Mourinho has helped end that lean spell with two goals and three assists in his past eight matches.
At Villa Park, everything good Spurs did revolved around Lucas. He won the ball back for Tottenham’s opening goal, playing a one-two with Harry Kane before squeezing the perfect low ball across to Carlos Vinicius to score his first Premier League goal.
The striker roared inside the empty stadium, exhaling all of the pent-up frustration from months of working for this moment.
Spurs’ second goal came from Ndombele winning the ball back and getting it to Lucas to play a pass into Kane’s path in the box and while the England captain miscued his attempt to hit the ball, Matty Cash brought down his trailing leg.
While some claimed it was a spot kick earned by Kane, even Villa boss Dean Smith pointed the finger at his own defender Cash, who did not protest the decision by Mike Dean.
The penalty also brought the strange sight of Giovani Lo Celso, who had been walking around the pitch after his substitution, stopping to take a break and sit on the advertising hoarding beside Villa’s goal to watch the kick being taken.
Thankfully Kane was not put off by the Argentine’s presence next to the right-hand post and Lo Celso got up to punch the air with both hands before returning to his long journey around Villa Park. Mourinho echoed his celebration in the dugout, the goal clearly meaning a lot to the Portuguese after a tough week.
Mourinho had paired Kane and Vinicius together for the first time and the partnership had its moments even if it needs time to grow, something that’s in short supply with so few games left.
While his hold-up play was hit and miss, Vinicius was a willing runner, which would have helped Kane after his two hours on the pitch on Thursday night, and the England man was able sit a little bit deeper.
Vinicius now has nine goals in nine starts for Spurs. Even if that stat is plumped up somewhat by the hat-trick at eighth-tier Marine in the FA Cup, it shows that he knows where the goal is.
He’s not Kane – who is? – but he’s made more of an impact across a campaign than any of his predecessors who have tried to provide back-up to Tottenham’s talisman.
Vinicius has netted 10 goals in 21 matches, with just 928 minutes of football to his name. For context, Kane has played 3,171 minutes for Tottenham this season.
Tottenham will not pay the near £40m required to bring Vinicius permanently to north London from Benfica, particularly with the current state of their finances after a year spent suffering from the revenue black hole of the pandemic.
However, Spurs know that in the current market few others clubs will pay that sum. They could do a lot worse than – once the futures of others are decided – trying to negotiate a lower figure for a player who at 25-years-old can develop and score more goals in the Premier League.
Then there is Kane. He showed that he wants to fight for Mourinho and the club from the early minutes, even in the simple moment of sprinting across the pitch and off of it to retrieve the ball for one throw-in.
With Vinicius taking the most advanced role, Kane did everything else, including plenty of getting back and defending in his own box.
When Mourinho hinted at players who did not really care about defeats, particularly the ones this week, it’s clear Kane was not one of them.
“It was embarrassing as players to go out of the Europa League in the manner that we did to be totally honest,” said Kane on Sunday.
“Obviously a lot of people talk in football and we can only do our talking on the pitch and show the club and the fans that we want to fight for every game from now until the end of the season.
“Of course we’re disappointed. It doesn’t just go away like that but this is the standard we set today and we need to keep it going.”
Kane now has a staggering 27 goals and 16 assists in 40 matches for Spurs this season.
He tops the Premier League charts now for goals – with Mohamed Salah – and assists and is the first player to be directly involved in as many as 30 goals in the Premier League this season.
He really is a phenomenal player and he’s reached his peak in a season when Mourinho has needed him more than ever.
That young defence
Mourinho put a lot of faith in a very young defence on Sunday night that could have crumbled underneath the negativity of the past week.
It featured four players thrown together for the first time as a unit with Lloris and that showed in the opening minutes of the match as Villa found plenty of space.
However, their understanding grew as the first half wore on and everything Mourinho had wanted from the young players put into the line-up worked.
Villa failed to take a single shot in the opening 45 minutes, the first time they have failed to do so in a home league game since April 2014. Lloris had to make only one comfortable save in the second half.
Japhet Tanganga once again proved how odd it has been that he hasn’t been given more minutes by Mourinho this season.
The 21-year-old is calm and composed in every situation and as an academy product he gives everything.
He’s not the most natural right-back, preferring (or asked) to tuck inside as a third centre-back more often than not, but he did show some ability on the ball during a couple of first half forays up the touchline.
He offers more defensively to allow the man in front of him to get forward and after poor displays from Doherty and Aurier this week, it was the perfect time for Tanganga to show his qualities once again before he links up with the England U21 squad.
Sergio Reguilon had some shaky moments in defence but offered a threat going forward before receiving a painful challenge to the top of his foot that eventually forced him off.
Joe Rodon impressed, particularly having not played since January. His steady display, including one vital block in front of goal, showed that he does not need to be babysat by two other centre-backs in a back three.
His inclusion over Eric Dier spoke volumes before the out-of-form England international heads off to link up with Gareth Southgate’s squad.
While he did produce his one mistake a game – a late mistimed challenge that saw him beaten in the box – Davinson Sanchez also did well in marshalling the young backline, himself only 24. Both he and Rodon made numerous key interceptions and won many of their aerial duels.
Sanchez was helped by the voice of Lloris and the booming instructions of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who other than some sloppy passes, was more like the midfield general he had been before recent weeks.
The moment that showed perhaps more than any other that Mourinho’s team selection was right came late on in the game.
Ross Barkley launched a powerful knee-height shot at goal from inside the Spurs box and that hunger the head coach had wanted was on full display as, despite the cushion of a two-goal lead, Tanganga, Sanchez and substitute Ben Davies all hurled themselves at the ball.
In the end it was Tanganga who made a superb block, leaving Barkley with his head in his hands and Moussa Sissoko, who despite coming on for the final 10 minutes, looking lethargic with a barely bothered raise of his foot as others flung themselves into the air around him.
It wasn’t a good look for the Frenchman and it did make you wonder whether Mourinho’s post-match comments mentioning him were meant as a compliment or not.
“That’s the next challenge [to play well consistently rather than as a reaction]. We are going to lose matches, we are going to play badly, we are going to have not very good performances, ut this state of mind, this emotional approach, this team spirit, this sacrifice,” he said.
“A guy coming from the bench like Sissoko to play eight minutes, and to give it all in this eight minutes. This kind of situation is the next challenge for myself as a coach, but I think is more of a challenge for them, for them as a group.”
Two weeks to scatter, clear heads and then regroup
This international break comes at a good time for Tottenham Hotspur as a club to spend some time apart, take a breath and then regroup.
They ended a poor week which had shown fractures within the group with a positive result which leaves Spurs just three points off the top four and with that favourable run of fixtures, on paper, in May.
They also have the Carabao Cup final next month against Manchester City. It will be the toughest of games but Mourinho will have eight days beforehand to prepare the team thoroughly to face a team they have managed to cause problems for this season and in other campaigns.
Mourinho will point out that Spurs have seven points than they did by the stage last season, have conceded 10 less and scored two more – the fourth highest amount in the Premier League with the third best defensive record.
Tottenham are two places higher in the table with three more victories than at this point last season – 14 to 11 – but the problem for Mourinho is that he was brought in to improve enough to take the club to a whole new level.
For the Portuguese now his most pressing issue is forging the dressing room together again for the run-in as there is still plenty to play for.
On one hand he could be brutal with just one game most weeks and anyone who wants to act up is simply not going to play.
Whether that works for the group as a whole though is another thing and it’s a delicate balance for the head coach, but at least his young players have shown what they can do.
Mourinho knows he has a job on his hands to strike the right balance.
“Football nowadays is not easy in relation to [have harmony in a squad],” he told Sky after the win at Villa Park.
“The selfishness is around, the individual interests are around, the agents are around, the connections between agents and press are around, and instead of developing a feeling of a team, empathy, ‘I do for you, you do for me’, ‘I win if I play 90 minutes, I win if I am in the stands’.
“This is something that you need time to develop this in a group. Nowadays you need time because society and the psychological profile of younger people is not an easy one.”
He added: “I want to be proud of my players, it does not matter the result.
“During my career I was proud of my players many times after defeats. I was not proud last Thursday or at the Emirates.
“For me, more than thinking about what position we are going to finish in, whether we are going to win the [Carabao Cup] Final, it is to try to develop this spirit that we need.
“However I cannot do it alone. I have to do it with my club. I have to do it with my players in the dressing room, but tonight I am really happy with what they did.”
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Some players will now disperse to various countries. They have been constantly in each other’s faces in recent months with matches every couple of days and the emotional gauntlet that brings.
The international players will head off to clear their heads in a different environment with their compatriots. Some like Steven Bergwijn can use international matches to boost their confidence.
Those left behind will be able to rest up and recover from knocks and some can work on their fitness.
Without matches it also enables Mourinho to take the time to properly talk things out with those who have been left dissatisfied in recent weeks and help restore that spirit.
Son and Reguilon can recover from their knocks, Lo Celso can continue to work on his fitness while Lucas and Sanchez can rest after playing plenty of minutes in the past month.
Erik Lamela, Carlos Vinicius, Dele Alli and Harry Winks will also remain at Hotspur Way and Mourinho will have very different conversations with that quartet and work with them all.
The players will also be given some time off to recharge their batteries with their families over the next fortnight ahead of the business end to the season.
Mourinho will be hoping for no injuries or illness on international duty and that his players return together as a group next month with renewed purpose for what they can achieve in the remainder of this season.
It’s not over yet, far from it, but only if they realise that.