On the one hand you can say Mauricio Pochettino has a deep enough squad to field nine reserves and still win, or the more cynical might suggest Tottenham are three injuries away from being a very average team.
Pochettino made nine changes to the side that ended Chelsea’s winning run last Wednesday and still ran out victorious, thanks to late goals from Ben Davies and Heung Min Son.
But of more concern might be the way Tottenham laboured without key players such as Harry Kane, who had spent the night with his partner awaiting the birth of their first child yesterday morning.
Villa are halfway down the Championship and with important players of their own injured, but for most of the afternoon, Steve Bruce’s men frustrated a Tottenham team also missing the creative talents of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli.
Pochettino revealed afterwards that Kane would have been on the bench, but was given a well-earned rest after becoming a father.
“Harry looked more tired than his wife, so we told him to get some sleep,” laughed the manager.
At least he was able to call on man-of-the-moment Alli, who replaced the abject Vincent Janssen after an hour and made a huge difference as Spurs finally took control in the final stages.
“Alli has the wonderful quality that top players have to find space and make the pass, and he opened us up for the goal, where they had not done before,” said Bruce.
Indeed Spurs had huffed and puffed, and though Villa only had one real chance of note, when Alderweireld blocked a close-range shot from Gabriel Agbonlahor, they proved stubborn opponents. “The FA Cup does not understand your level, whether you come from the Premier League or Championship,” said Pochettino.
“Aston Villa deserve credit, they defended deep and counter attacked, and it was difficult to break them down and create chances, especially in the first-half.”
The first hour largely forgettable. Tottenham had plenty of possession and built from the back, as is usually the case. But without Eriksen, Alli and Kane, the architects of their recent run to third in the Premier League, they had little penetration and they did not register a single effort on target until Janssen sent a shot into the midriff of Villa keeper Sam Johnstone shortly after half-time.
Janssen’s has scored only three goals, all penalties, since his arrival from AZ Alkmaar last summer, and Pochettino had seen enough in an hour of snatched chances and poor touches. When the manager decided he needed to enliven his attack with the introduction of Alli, it was Janssen’s number that came up.
Spurs improved instantly, Alli’s touches and movement between the lines unsettling Villa, and he set up the impressive Harry Winks for a shot that was well saved by Johnstone. Moments after Pochettino replaced centre-back Toby Alderweireld with winger Georges-Kevin Nkoudou in the 70th minute, Spurs made the breakthrough. Alli’s clever dummy allowed him to take a return pass, and he played the ball to Nkoudo, who drove in a cross that needed a deft flick to take towards the far corner of goal. Davies provided it with his head and Spurs were finally ahead.
“It’s only 1-0,” sang the Villa fans who had been taunting home supporters all afternoon.
Soon it was 2-0, with Nkoudou involved again. His crossfield pass to Danny Trippier was taken on by Moussa Sissoko, who cut in from the right and squared the ball for Heung Min Son to score with a low shot.
With 10 minutes remaining, it was effectively game over, although Son should have scored again in stoppage time, when substitute Josh Onomah put him in on goal, but Johnstone made another good save.
So Tottenham are through to the fourth round of the cup, and Villa can now concentrate on a return to the Premier League. “We know what we have to do to get back to this level,” said Bruce.
“Tottenham are a very good side, but we made it hard for them.” Pochettino was understandably upbeat. “I am pleased with the way we won and the way the team performed, especially those who do not play regularly,” he added.
But it is clear he will need his big guns back when the league resumes next weekend.
Vorm 6; Carter-Vickers 6, Alderweireld 7 (Nkoudou 70), Wimmer 6; Trippier 7, Winks 8, Dier 7, Davies 6; Sissoko 6 (Onomah 84), Son 6; Janssen 4 (Alli 60)
Johnstone 7; Hutton 6, Chester 7, Baker 6, Amavi 6; Adomah 6 (Green 77), Tshibola 6, Jedinak 6 (Davis 77), Grealish 7, Bacuna 6; Agbonlahor 5 (McCormack 77)