TOTTENHAM’S elevation to genuine title contenders has germinated from Harry Redknapp evolving a multi-dimensional side.
There is no reliance on a 25-goal-a-season striker nor the resilience of a defence fierce enough to habitually register the 1-0 scoreline which saw Harry Redknapp’s men prevail against Sunderland yesterday, to ensure Spurs last the pace among the half-dozen clubs vying for silverware and Champions League riches.
But any layman can spot that much of Spurs’ threat this season stems from two wingers capable of torturing any defence for pace, ably supported by full-backs not far behind in the speed stakes.
Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon stretch a back line like no other widemen in the top flight and create the space for Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart to exploit with such effortless ease.
There had to be a sense then of Sunderland spurning a presentable opportunity to at least ensure Martin O’Neill’s reign remained unbeaten yesterday after Bale was ruled out prior to kick-off and Lennon lasted less than 30 minutes.
It was no coincidence that Bale’s absence and Lennon’s premature departure resulted in a subdued first half from the hosts, who even had a helping hand with Sunderland’s tendency to cheaply surrender possession in the opening exchanges.
If a Top Trump comparison was made of Bale and John O’Shea, then there would be only one victor in the pace stakes, yet the former Manchester United man was far more comfortable in handling makeshift left-winger Modric.
The Croatian didn’t offer the same outlet and it was only when he drifted infield that he posed any semblance of a threat.
On the opposite flank, Lennon was well-marshalled by Phil Bardsley, who recovered superbly on the one occasion he slipped and let the right-winger race away, with the introduction of Roman Pavyluchenko for the England international further narrowing Spurs’ attack.
Van der Vaart and Modric became peripheral while it was only the runs of Scott Parker and the impressive Sandro from deep that looked capable of upsetting Sunderland’s defensive fortitude, led by another towering display from Titus Bramble.
It didn’t take Sunderland’s busy midfielders long to grasp the importance of tracking back though and the Black Cats became increasingly proactive in pushing men forward in a bid to nab an unexpected opener.
Redknapp realised a change of approach was needed at the interval and adopted a more pragmatic mantra of getting the ball into the strikers earlier, being swifter in the delivery from out wide and trying to pressurise Sunderland into mistakes further up the field.
The latter was the avenue which finally presented van der Vaart with some space to feed Pavyluchenko and, from that moment, the game had a different complexion.
Freed from the shackles, Spurs’ one and two-touch game resumed and the speed of their approach play created the commodity they had been so desperately missing – space, particularly out wide.
For much of the second half, Benoit Assou-Ekotto took the role of left-winger rather than left-back.
With Seb Larsson tucked inside, it left the Cameroon international too often licking his lips at the prospect of a one-on-one against the backtracking O’Shea.
But the Republic of Ireland international kept his head and produced arguably the most solid performance of a Sunderland career which has so far come in fits and starts.
On a solitary occasion, O’Shea was skinned on the left-hand by-line and had to be rescued by his team-mates, but, for the most part, the 30-year-old persisted with tellingly intercepting Assou-Ekotto’s attempts to get past him.
Yesterday was not the first time this season, though, that Sunderland have neutralised the wing threat of Champions League-chasing opponents, yet ultimately succumbed.
It was the same story at Arsenal and Manchester United where all the good work in subduing Nani and Theo Walcott was undone by a solitary moment’s lapse in concentration.
It’s that distressing pattern which O’Neill must eradicate, together with making more of Sunderland’s own threat from out wide.
Too many times yesterday, the ball came in from Seb Larsson, Kieran Richardson or sub James McClean in a desperate hope of picking out the solitary figure lingering in the penalty area.
Inevitably, that resulted in failure, but there was little else for Sunderland to do but persist.
While Redknapp can boast an array of attacking assets that enables him to tinker with strategy, O’Neill has inherited a set of industrious central midfielders, charged with getting the ball out wide to those who can deliver into the area.
The plan comes up short when no-one profits from that service, leaving O’Neill with little choice than to keep re-iterating the importance of chancing a run into the area in the hope of winning a header, rebound or knock-down.
Only then will Sunderland have an armoury of their own on the flanks.