By Greg Stobart
It was so typical. So Tottenham. On the brink of a fifth straight win and looking to cement their place in the top four, Andre Villas-Boas’ side contrived to concede two goals in the dying stages at Everton to return to London wondering what might have been.
After 89 minutes, Spurs were heading to victory thanks to Clint Dempsey’s deflected effort, but they were sucker-punched by two goals in 88 seconds, the visitors’ defence falling apart as first Steven Pienaar and then Nikica Jelavic scored amid scenes of bedlam at Goodison Park.
Villas-Boas might have seen it coming. Tottenham have now conceded 10 goals in the last 10 minutes of Premier League matches, the worst record in the closing stages of games of any side in the division.
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Instead, they sit fifth, level on points with fourth-placed Everton and still well in the hunt for the Champions League places as we approach a busy period in which the fixture list has treated Spurs kindly.
But the young squad being developed by Villas-Boas will have to answer questions about their mental strength. The manager himself will have to address concerns over his tactics late in games and his ability to cajole his players.
“If we count the number of goals we concede in the last 15 minutes, we would be top,” said Villas-Boas. “There are so many different reasons, it is not easy to explain because some come from different situations. It is something we need to improve on, to see off games.”
The traditional perception that Spurs teams have a soft backbone was extinguished under Harry Redknapp as they ground out results - but their weak mentality has been back in force this season.
The turning point against Everton was defender Steven Caulker’s decision to ignore a shout from goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and, seconds later, when the ball should have been safely in the Frenchman’s hands, Pienaar was heading it into the bottom corner.
Caulker will, over time, eradicate those errors. However, he needs people around him who can develop his game. On recent evidence, ‘team captain’ William Gallas certainly is not the man, the 35-year-old looking every day his age as he stumbles around the pitch making error after error, week after week.
Certainly, Spurs tend to look tired late on in matches, perhaps a consequence of their Europa League campaign or Villas-Boas’ lack of rotation as he looks to mould the team to his preferred style of play.
The Portuguese will have to be even more wary of his players’ fatigue approaching the festive period and beyond, with plenty to learn from the results in the second half of last season under Redknapp.
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Yet at least the problems are obvious, and work can be done to fix them. It is not as simple as saying ‘let’s not concede late goals’ but there is a sense that Spurs are still coping with losing Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart and Ledley King in the summer, not to mention key injuries to the likes of Younes Kaboul and Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
They will never achieve anything, though, unless they get the mentality sorted, show they are able to win games, turn games on their head and scrap until the last kick as Manchester United have done for so many years.
Villas-Boas needs to redefine the meaning of ‘typical Tottenham’ - because at the moment his side’s late wobbles are only cementing the long-held view.
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