Early, historic returns show Spurs, Dempsey could be set for success
Clint Dempsey scored the winner for Spurs against Manchester United on Sunday
Manager Andre Villas-Boas plays a system suited for Dempsey's skill set
It's too early to get carried away, but there's something encouraging about Spurs
It took Clint Dempsey just five games to stitch his name in to the tapestry that tells the story of Tottenham Hotspur. His first goal for the club, Tottenham's third on Saturday and what was in the end the difference between them and Manchester United, broke a hoodoo that had lasted almost a quarter of a century. Spurs fans arrived in Manchester hoping to see something different but dreading another defeat after 23 years without a win at Old Trafford. Dempsey's calmly side-footed effort for a 3-1 lead was greeted with delirium; even after Shinji Kagawa's almost immediate reply put the score at 3-2 with more than half an hour to play, the traveling supporters gave in to the opiate effects of belief.
In those 37 minutes (plus the four minutes of stoppage time that so aggravated Sir Alex Ferguson), Spurs hunkered down and defended for their lives -- ordinarily the kind of behavior that would have their fans gnawing on their knuckles as an inevitable defeat played out. But there is something different about these Spurs, it seems. If the difficulty the team had against the traditional "big four" was what marked Tottenham as being close-but-not-quite-there, this result and the way that it came about signals at least the potential for a cigar.
"I would say so," Dempsey nodded, when asked if this win made a statement about Spurs. "It puts us back up the table where we should be. In the first half we played some really good football; second half, you can take away from it when you're not playing your best and you've still got the character to grind out a result. I was on the bench [at the end of the game] and I was just praying, man, that we could see it out. The boys fought hard, got on the end of things, blocked shots and really fought hard for it. I thought we deserved the win."
It is fair to say that Dempsey is not the principle difference between the old Tottenham and the new; so far Moussa Dembele is the most important new signing in that regard. Out with the delicacy of Luka Modric and in with the bulldozing directness of the Belgian. With Dembele covering the ground between the more defensive Sandro and Jermain Defoe (trusted to the role of lone striker and reveling in it) and Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon in savagely good form out wide, Andre Villas-Boas' Spurs side is fast to the point of being impolite, barging through opposition lines without so much as a howdy-do. It is in precisely this kind of setup that Dempsey can flourish.
His goal at Old Trafford was a simple finish: goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard parried Bale's shot out in to the middle of the penalty box, and Dempsey put the ball into an empty net. Coming seconds after Nani had pulled a goal back for United, it was a reminder of the coolness under pressure that Tottenham can expect from the American, the only midfielder among the league's top 10 scorers last season after netting 17 times for Fulham, where he also played in the same side as Dembele.
Look at the build-up, though: a long ball out and Spurs had four players pushing forward before it had bounced. Defoe, roving across the front, fended off Rio Ferdinand to claim and keep the ball before playing a reverse pass for Bale, who had spotted the gap opened up between the right back Rafael and United's other center half, Jonny Evans -- who had no option but to close Bale down, leaving Lindegaard exposed. All the while Dempsey had been trotting into the penalty area untracked. Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick were not close enough to stop him from scoring.
"I've been [in the Premier League] for five and a half years, and this is my first time getting three points here and my first time scoring against [United]," Dempsey said. The American has a knack for turning up in just the spot to score a goal, and he can take them almost any way they need hitting: his goals for Fulham last season included headers, curling free-kicks, dinks, penalties -- and a remarkable number of close-range efforts from unmarked positions. Playing through the middle in a side that will open up opposition defenses with the speed of its attacks, Dempsey is a fine fit.
"Everybody's excited," Dempsey said, emerging from the away dressing room at Old Trafford. "We've been playing a lot of games, so it's good that we've gotten the results that we have in our last few fixtures. Hopefully we can keep on moving forward. I think everybody is starting to hit their stride, the team is getting stronger, and we've got a lot of depth."
It is a long while since anybody accused Tottenham of having a thin squad, but this is probably one of the first seasons in which the manager has genuine choices to make in most positions barring the left side (though Jan Vertonghen's performances from the left back position, coupled with Steven Caulker's confidence in replacing him in the middle, make Benoit Assou-Ekotto's knee injury less of a problem than it might have been). In addition to Dempsey, Villas-Boas has Gylfi Sigurdsson available to play in that space between midfield and the striker, and substitute Andros Townsend has caught the manager's eye with his performances out wide so far this season.
"This is a squad that can go places," Caulker said. "We've got a new manager with new ideas, and he's brought in a lot of youngsters. They've been training with us and a lot of them were on the bench [against United]." Though there has been reported tension between the recently signed French international goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and the incumbent in the Tottenham goal, Brad Friedel, that has simmered down since Lloris made his first appearance, in the Europa League (and if anything, Friedel has played even better for having genuine competition). There is nothing in the way that Spurs have been playing to suggest that Villas-Boas is enduring the same struggle that he did at Chelsea last season. The Tottenham camp sounds like a happy and responsive one.
"Andre's very involved in training," Sigurdsson told The Telegraph, ahead of the weekend's visit to the northwest. "When we are playing games, it is almost like he's playing as well, he's right in the thick of it. Most of the boys are really happy with the training. We are getting into a rhythm with the new system now," he added, referring to the 4-2-3-1 formation preferred by Villas-Boas. "Most of the players are comfortable playing this way."
Ferguson was right to say that the new manager suits Tottenham, where style has always been as important as the result and knockout competitions have often represented the best chance of silverware. Villas-Boas has already made it clear that the Europa League and the League Cup will not come second to the chase for Champions League places. It is too early to get carried away (after six games, Tottenham is only one point better off than it was from comparable fixtures last season), but there is something about Spurs' full steam under Villas-Boas that encourages you to do just that.