For Tottenham, the rot has stopped and that for now is perhaps the most important thing. After three successive league defeats, culminating in the embarrassment at Arsenal, any win is a good win – this one delivered when Matt Targett turned the ball into his own net under pressure from Lucas Moura. But the result aside this was an uneven performance in a game that lacked quality before half-time, the occasional poverty of the football highlighted by the grandeur of the stage.
There were flickerings of promise, especially in the second half. Oliver Skipp continues to grow into a role at the back of midfield. Son Heung-min looks as lively as ever and played a key role in both goals. “The only difference between the two teams today,” said Dean Smith, “was Son.”
Harry Kane, remaining higher up the pitch than he has recently, was fleetingly dangerous and nearly caught Emi Martínez out with an opportunistic free-kick. But still it’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is a team nowhere near as good as the stadium in which it plays; there remains an element of Florence Foster Jenkins at Carnegie Hall about them.
It had been more than a month since Spurs had taken the lead in a league game when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, having won the ball on halfway, continued his run, and took a pass from Son unmarked on the edge of the box. The Denmark international’s more advanced role this season means he sometimes finds himself in positions in which he is not entirely comfortable, but on this occasion he rolled the ball calmly into the bottom corner. It was a goal that had, just about, been coming but there was little fluency to Tottenham, little sense of an attacking plan beyond Lucas Moura dropping deep and driving forward.
Nobody doubts that circumstances have been difficult for Nuno Espírito Santo. It’s no secret he was some distance from being first choice as José Mourinho’s replacement, something that impinges on his credibility and also reduced to a few days the time available to him to assess the squad and begin to plan before pre-season training began. At Wolves, even before everything went stale in his final season, the sense was of a manager who was perhaps too concerned by planning, whose side was hard for better teams to break down but often frustrating in games they were expected to win. There were signs of that with Spurs on the season’s opening weekend in the win over Manchester City, but not since.
That Spurs went into the weekend having taken fewer shots and created fewer chances than any other side in the Premier League was disappointing but perhaps not a surprise. But Nuno was supposed to make Spurs fitter and yet they covered less distance over the opening six games than anybody else in the division. The worry there is that the lack of running was not just a feature of a Mourinho side, but is endemic in teams who practise tactical periodisation. The theories of Vítor Frade, which have influenced a generation of Portuguese coaches, perhaps are no longer quite so effective.
By far the biggest positive for Spurs in the first half was that they largely stopped Villa from playing; certainly the visitors were nowhere near as impressive as they had been in recent away games at Manchester United and Chelsea.
“The game was too scrappy,” said Smith. “That was the disappointing thing and we didn’t do enough with possession.”
But as the second half opened up, Spurs’ sense of control vanished. The question going forward for Nuno is whether he can find a way for his side to show the attacking spirit of the second half without leaving themselves quite so open.
As caginess became chaos, both sides had chances. The equaliser and the goal that restored Tottenham’s advantage were similar, both beginning with a turnover and culminating in a low cross turned in, respectively, by Ollie Watkins and Targett.
As haymakers continued to be flailed, Spurs were closer to adding a third than Villa were to finding an equaliser but there was little sense of security, and it was probably just as well Spurs regained the lead as swiftly as they did.
“Many times we have conceded and gone flat,” said Nuno, “but this time the team did well.” Still, it was hard to avoid the thought that a few more minutes at 1-1 and anxiety could easily have taken over, both with the players and the crowd.
Hugo Lloris has spoken of how it will take time for a manager to impose his ideas, but the doubts about Nuno have been obvious in the days since the debacle away to Arsenal. Is he big enough for the job? Does he have the necessary authority or charisma? Has he effectively been cast out without hope into impossible seas?
This was a result that will ease the immediate pressure but a performance that should convince nobody.