Tottenham Hotspur vs. Hull City: 6 Things We Learned
Roberto Soldado sealed the win from the penalty spot after an 80th-minute handball by Ahmed Elmohamady.
Tottenham had dominated possession but had struggled to find a way through Hull's well-organized back five.
Soon after, an injury to Andros Townsend (from which he returned with a bandaged wrist) conspired to take the life out of the game. Still, the Tigers might have snatched an equalizer from a couple of free-kicks during five minutes of stoppage time.
The two clubs face off again at White Hart Lane on Wednesday in the Capital One Cup. Before attentions turn fully to that meeting, here are a few things learned from Sunday's clash.
Spurs Are Still Searching for a Spark in Attack
Other than replacing Gylfi Sigurdsson with Aaron Lennon in (initially) left midfield, Andre Villas-Boas stuck with the same starting lineup that beat Aston Villa 2-0 a week ago.
Without a similar first-half goal to force their opponent to open up in search of an equalizer, Tottenham were forced to toil for long periods in front of a Hull side largely happy to focus on keeping the home side out.
The Tigers did so almost impeccably for 80 minutes. Playing a flat-back five does not lend itself to getting numbers forward, but it makes a team hard to break down.
A degree of sympathy can be afforded Spurs here. Not only do such systems often deny them the chance to counterattack, it ensures acts of often extraordinary intricacy are required in finding a way through well-honed and organized defenses.
Spurs were a little unlucky not to score against Hull before they did. As the first half progressed they found a little joy attacking from wide right but could not work a proper opening. Post-interval, Andros Townsend played in Roberto Soldado, who could not get it out of his feet quick enough to curl it satisfactorily past Steve Harper.
It showed Spurs have chances in them, but are still struggling to find that spark that will see them create even more dangerously and consistently than they have been.
Against Hull there were too many instances when a pass was forced when patience could have been exhibited. Around the half-hour mark, the virtue of biding their time was shown with a couple of attacks that stretched the Tigers defense.
Crucially though, Spurs also quickened the tempo in the buildup to these chances.
So far this season there have been various examples of different players—individually and in combination—bringing together a patience in possession that is suitably enhanced by speed.
Sandro Has His Value, but It Might Not Be One for All Occasions
Having kept things simple against Aston Villa, some of Sandro's sloppier tendencies were on show against Hull. Getting ahead of himself on a few occasions, he frustratingly gave away possession unchallenged, though he was not alone here as Townsend was also rather wasteful early on.
More positively Sandro was also typically alert in keeping Hull pegged back in the first half. A couple of headers and a further two interceptions (numbers via Squawka.com) stifled their search for an outlet, as did a satisfyingly crunching tackle on George Boyd.
A booking played its part in his half-time withdrawal. Considering this was the first time the Brazilian had started three straight games since the turn of the year, a rest was probably necessary too.
Sandro's selection ahead of Mousa Dembele in central midfield did serve to raise a question about manager Andre Villas-Boas' approach in the position.
Between those two, Paulinho, Lewis Holtby and the soon-to-be-returning Etienne Capoue he certainly has options. Holtby played about as deep as he has all season at times as part of a setup that was more in tune with a midfield three than when the more naturally advanced Christian Eriksen plays.
Perhaps though, this performance made clear the need for a horses-for-courses approach.
Where Sandro proved suitable against Villa (and would likely have against West Ham United's combative midfielders prior to that), Dembele's better use of the ball may have served Spurs better from the off on Sunday.
A rotation policy is not always good for a team, but in Spurs and Villas-Boas' case, it could suit the players at hand.
Deploying someone to sit, obstruct and destruct might be the wise choice in upcoming games at Everton and Manchester City—two teams with midfield counterparts like Ross Barkley and Yaya Toure who cannot be allowed to surge forward unchecked.
But against Hull this Wednesday night and Newcastle United in November, a slightly more attacking midfield built around taking the game to the opponent will be more suitable in negating the threat of Tom Huddlestone or Yohan Cabaye in unlocking Spurs.
The two methods are not mutually exclusive, but an emphasis on one is sometimes the appropriate course of action.
Huddlestone's All-Round Game Is Getting Close to Its Previous Best
Tom Huddlestone's return to White Hart Lane after leaving Tottenham this summer was not the ideal showcase for his passing game.
There were some typically impressive attempts in involving his teammates, but sitting back as deep as Hull generally did, he was not given too much opportunity to create. Early on he took a little time to adjust to the quickness with which he was closed down too.
Given a defensive brief, what was on show was a tougher side of his game that was not so evident at Spurs following his return from lengthy injury layoffs during his seven seasons at Tottenham.
Admittedly helped by the fortress behind him, Huddlestone was nonetheless a big part of a fine defending line in front.
As tallied by Squawka.com, he made three successful tackles, three interceptions and four clearances.
Numbers are not always the best indicator of a player's role in a resistance, but they do highlight some admirable contributions from Huddlestone.
A return to the all-round form that marked his best season for Spurs in 2009-10 will be a welcome sight for longtime watchers of the 26-year-old. It will also serve Hull well as the season progresses.
Steve Bruce Deserves More Credit as a Manager
Hull City's 11 points from nine games this season has been a solid return for the newly promoted club.
The work they still have to do to stay up was highlighted by the disappointment of holding out for so long only to lose 1-0. But the club undoubtedly has reason to be encouraged by the start to the campaign.
Considering Steve Bruce's side was without first-team players Sone Aluko, Danny Graham, Jake Livermore and Allan McGregor, he still fashioned a highly credible opponent to take on and almost upset Spurs.
Bruce's defensive strategy might not appeal to all, but it kept them in the game for 80 minutes. Without Aluko and Graham they were missing some of their attacking edge, so keeping it tight made sense rather than attempting to take the game to Spurs and getting caught out.
With that said, Boyd, David Meyler and Yannick Sabo still managed to make a nuisance of themselves when they were able to get further forward.
Showing a good understanding of the resources available to him, Bruce will need to find ways of keeping them productive in the months ahead.
Success here should deservedly prompt a re-evaluation of his credentials as a top-flight manager.
While his early years as a coach were marked by numerous changes of employer, he helped provide Birmingham City with the most success they had in years.
The job he did in stabilizing Wigan Athletic in the Premier League is largely overlooked. And given the upheaval that has since followed at Sunderland, in hindsight they might have been better in sticking with him.
Handball Law Needs to Be Rewritten for Better Clarification
You might have noticed the admittance of words like "contentious" and "controversial" in describing the decision to award a penalty for Ahmed Elmohamady's handball in this article's introduction.
That was on purpose, because despite Bruce describing it to BBC Sport as a "joke" and Villas-Boas even commenting it was "a harsh decision," they are both wrong.
It might not have been strictly deliberate (though even that is debatable) like the law of the game outlines, but Elmohamady had no need whatsoever to raise his arm like he did.
This BBC Sport article quotes former Premier League referee David Elleray citing the need for referees, in the absence of further details in the law, to "look at two specifics—did the hand or arm go towards the ball or in a manner which would block the ball, or is the hand in a position where it would not normally be?"
Elmohamady's was certainly a case of the latter.
He was far enough away from Jan Vertonghen's cross that it was not like he was unable to move his arm away in time (i.e, when leniency should be applied) as he moved it upward in the first place in a movement that was nowhere near being necessary to helping him block the ball legally.
As Elleray further outlines in his notes in the aforementioned article, referees do also consider whether a player only "raised their arms to protect themselves."
The notion that a player could be let off from handling the ball in that instance is why the handball law should not only be better clarified, but done so far stricter than it is.
If a player is afraid of the ball hitting them, they should either not be playing football or aware of the consequences for interfering with the ball's motion using their hand.
Football is being overrun by cheats and players who are too soft as it is without them also being allowed to get away with handball.
Townsend Deserves the Opportunity to Continue to Hone His Game
Andros Townsend had as challenging a match as he faced in weeks against Hull. The Tigers gave him little space to work in, and late in the game he suffered a wrist injury after falling over an advertising board.
Even so, there were still glimpses of the talent that has lit up English football this season. A testing shot for Harper in the first half was followed later on by a great run-and-pass that almost led to Soldado giving Spurs the lead.
He continues to work hard and—in what is arguably his most admirable trait—does not ever got disheartened enough he is not prepared to try and try again.
Just as heartening is his attitude to getting better. Speaking to Tottenham's official Twitter after the match, he was aware of the need to adjust to the greater attention he is now receiving: "If I want to be a top player, that's something I need to work on."
Given Townsend's work ethic, it is hard not to see him taking the steps to become a player who can make it in the Premier League over many years. Not to mention more imminently, playing his part as Spurs look to become more effective in attack.
In the meantime Townsend's response in the face of his injury will certainly endear him to the White Hart Lane faithful.
"I didn't want to go off on a stretcher with a wrist injury," he told @SpursOfficial. "I saw we had 10 men so ran back on."