LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Aston Villa in the third round of the FA Cup on Sunday.
1. Spurs’ second string fail to shine
Tottenham’s outstanding victory over Chelsea put them firmly back into the title conversation, and they won for a sixth game running. Their 2-0 win over Aston Villa at White Hart Lane sealed a place in the FA Cup fourth round.
Spurs finished the game in cruise control after Ben Davies’ first goal for the club and a second from Son Heung-Min, but for long periods their second string looked short of pep and ideas, and the performance raised more questions about the quality of Spurs’ squad and their ability to compete in the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Europa League in the second half of the season.
Mauricio Pochettino made nine changes from the Chelsea match, with Spurs again in a 3-4-3 formation — suggesting it is here to stay — and Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier keeping their places. Tottenham’s front three — Moussa Sissoko, Vincent Janssen and Son — cost a combined £70 million but the most interesting aspect of the first half was Villa fans’ taunting of under-pressure referee Mike Dean, who appeared to celebrate a Mousa Dembele goal here against the Midlands club in November 2015, and has overseen six Spurs victories in his last seven matches, awarding them five penalties and showing the opposition three red cards.
Dean was untroubled for the most of the match and so were Villa’s defence until Spurs introduced Dele Alli and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou around the hour mark. Nkoudou played a part in both goals, crossing for Davies to nod into the far corner in the 71st minute and playing a good long pass before Son’s well-taken finish from Sissoko’s cross.
Of all Spurs’ players, Nkoudou furthered his claim the most, but there was little else from Tottenham’s fringe to suggest the likes of Alli, Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen will be losing sleep. Of everyone, Spurs missed the Dane the most. Sissoko and Son do their best work running at defences but Villa sat deep and Eriksen, who was not on the bench, may have found a way to unlock the visitors’ before Davies made the breakthrough.
This week, Pochettino suggested that bad luck with injuries was the main reason Spurs were not doing even better in the Premier League. On the evidence of long periods of this game, Spurs are three bad injuries away from being an uninspiring side.
2. Pochettino prioritising the Prem
Tottenham and Villa have 15 FA Cups between them, and it wasn’t so long ago that Villa’s seven triumphs was second only to Spurs’ eight. It may have been the third round and Villa may be a midtable Championship club now, but this was still a big cup tie on paper.
The atmosphere was understandably more relaxed than Wednesday’s tense encounter — epitomosed by Pochettino, who swapped a suit and shoes for a tracksuit and lime green boots — but there was a testimonial quality to the game.
Pochettino publicly insists that he cares about the all the cups but he is a league manager, and the pursuit of the Premier League title has swallowed everything else for the Argentine — to the extent that he even rested players in the Champions League. He has overseen exits in the fourth and fifth rounds of the FA Cup during his two seasons at the club, and Spurs are already out of the EFL Cup this season after a second string lost at Liverpool.
Son Heung-Min scored Tottenham’s second in a 2-0 win over Aston Villa in the FA Cup third round on Sunday.
Spurs are in the hat for Monday’s fourth-round draw, and another game against lower-league opposition will give Pochettino the chance to hand more minutes to the likes of Nkoudou and youngsters Cameron Carter-Vickers and Harry Winks, who both looked assured. It is hard to believe they will progress past a decent opposition, however. For now, Spurs are a league team.
3. Janssen fluffs big chance
Of all Tottenham’s fringe players, Vincent Janssen needed a big performance. The £17 million summer signing is still without a goal from open play for Tottenham and, after deputising (poorly) while Harry Kane was injured, he has been reduced to a series of clumsy cameos since the Englishman’s return. He was left out of the squad altogether for Wednesday’s win over Chelsea — damning, given that he is the club’s only other true striker — but a Championship opponent with a woeful record on the road represented a chance for Janssen to score and build some confidence.
He did neither, and when he was replaced by Dele Alli just before the hour, he looked like a broken man, slumping onto the bench with a perma-scowl.
If Janssen had one redeeming feature earlier in the season, it was his hold-up play and willingness to find a teammate quickly. But here the ball bounced off him and he always seemed to be facing away from goal, and demanding one touch too many. He had one shot — a tame effort easily saved by Villa debutant Sam Johnstone — and as the game wore on, it became a case of whether Pochettino would risk damaging his second striker further by replacing him. He did, and it was no surprise that Spurs got better after he went off.
Dan is ESPN FC’s Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.