The style of last season's Tottenham was rearing its head again. The too-slow passages of play, confident build-up gradually dissipating towards nothingness, and aimlessly passing short around two banks of four all had hallmarks of last year. The only difference was that Gareth Bale was unavailable to score from 30 yards -- and so a 1-0 win against a team that frankly looked terrible was all they could manage.
It's no surprise then, that attacking midfield is the area that Daniel Levy has made moves to address. It seems increasingly likely that the two players he'll pick to fill the hole are Willian and Erik Lamela. Both are supremely talented players, yet offer a relatively similar style -- pace, unpredictability, and a variety of attacking benefits without being a master of any. They'll undoubtedly benefit Tottenham and both can certainly replicate Bale's habit of scoring goals from nothing, but it will be interesting to see whether their lack of raw creativity poses a problem.
That's not to say Spurs are silly for not buying anyone of that ilk because the type of player they need is a David Silva, a Juan Mata or a Mesut Özil -- all unlikely to be pitching up at White Hart Lane anytime soon. They've probably done the best that they can with what was available to them ... and Lamela and Willian are hardly clueless when it comes to passing.
The potential midfield three of Etienne Capoue, Sandro and Paulinho, one so muscular and dynamic it makes Bayern Munich look lightweight, can potentially control a game better than any other trio in the league. It's easy to see Spurs falling back on the old ways, though, the frustrating repetition that cost them a Champions League spot last year where they simply played it to the wide midfielders and hoped something would happen.
Andre Villas-Boas has an odd reputation as an entertaining manager who plays good football, but we might as well admit that in terms of fun, his side are nowhere near Harry Redknapp's Spurs. You just don't feel yourself clamoring to watch them over any other team during the 3pm kickoffs. They're much better because they still invite pressure at needless times and struggle to kill games off, but that's an illusory sprinkling of show business. The reality is that the defence is usually more up to the job than it first appears.
Redknapp's early direction of Tottenham, with Luka Modric deployed on the left wing, was arguably even more cavalier than the one that got to show it on the biggest stage of all in the Champions League. It's worth wondering whether there's not something to be learned from that side, deeply flawed as they were: With three midfielders who are all fast, mobile and adept in defence and a solid enough back four (assuming Fabio Coentrao's arrival), the side should have enough to deal with counter-attacks so they can afford to be more daring.
Given their midfielders, it's perhaps essential they are -- anything else threatens to be tedious in the extreme with three such all-rounders there. Nobody needs to move on to some grand totality of play where any player on the pitch is expected to be able to play a defence-splitting pass -- Manchester United's method may not have won them too many European titles, but it's certainly allowed them to punch well above their weight.
United have shown exactly what Spurs are lacking. They are perhaps the polar opposites of one another, one all good-but-not-great players and powerful midfielders, but struggling to finish and display the right mentality. The other has Robin van Persie. The fear of missing out on a player of similar team-carrying ability may boost fears of a declne, but the amount of extra firepower recruited should more than offset it. Tottenham's additions are simply too talented for there to be no combination that will work ... the onus is now on Villas-Boas to find it.