Tottenham Hotspur 0 Stoke City 0
For a man who wraps almost every sentence in all manner of caveats and qualifications, Andre Villas-Boas was surprisingly unequivocal on Saturday.
“If it was easy, then Stoke wouldn’t have the best defence in Europe.”
It’s a statement that puts a rather different slant on the old line about rainy Wednesday nights in Stoke. And, although it has to be put in the context of the Spurs boss trying to cover an unimaginative attacking performance from his team, it isn’t without a few concrete facts to back it up.
Saturday’s 0-0 draw was Stoke’s ninth clean sheet of the season, the highest in the Premier League, and also ensured the best defensive record in the division with just 13 goals conceded.
Across Europe’s major leagues, in fact, only Bayern Munich, Malaga and Juventus have conceded fewer — all top seeds in Thursday’s Champions League draw.
Of course, to put it down to just Stoke’s defence is a little misleading. As Spurs found on Saturday, the entire team is built towards physically filling gaps and frustrating.
“They’re well organised, they do well on the counter and, through crosses, they are taller than you,” said AVB. “When you play through passes, they outnumber you.”
For that very reason, Stoke have become one of the most criticised and unloved teams in Europe. Despite his well-known regard for open football though, Villas-Boas doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“I totally respect Stoke,” the Spurs boss said. “They concede the initiative to the opponent. It’s not easy when you give so much possession and you have to defend but all credit to them and their work.”
Typically, Tony Pulis wasn’t too bothered by what people were saying.
“We’re a football club that just gets on with things, irrespective of what people say. If people are nice, then fine. If people are not so nice, then fine. It doesn’t affect me.”
The result, however, did affect Spurs. For all Arsenal’s problems, Villas-Boas’s side have now dropped below them while the performance raised concerns about Tottenham’s ability to unlock such games and ultimately finish in the top four. In short, as rumours rise about a bid for Ajax’s Christian Eriksen, Spurs seemed to be missing exactly that kind of creative spark. Villas-Boas, however, insists his team have sufficient attacking depth to qualify for the Champions League.
“I think we have enough to finish top four. What we want is to improve and to improve is to get Champions League qualification. The objective is ultimately to get that place.”
The irony is that, on Saturday, Tottenham played against a team with a Champions League-level defensive record.
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Lloris; Walker, Dawson, Caulker, Vertonghen; Lennon (Sigurdsson 78), Sandro, Dembele (Parker 85), Bale; Defoe, Adebayor
STOKE CITY: Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilkinson; Shotton (Whitehead 64), Whelan, Nzonzi, Etherington (Crouch 69); Walters, Jones (Jerome 66)
Referee: Lee Mason (Lancashire).
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