Crisis? What crisis? José Mourinho responded to the week that threatened to derail Tottenham Hotspur’s season by selecting a second striker, in Carlos Vinícius, to take some of the workload off Harry Kane and they both scored to help their team move back into sixth place in the Premier League, only three points off the Champions League positions.
After the hullabaloo that followed two emotional defeats in five days, the Spurs manager was able to make his point to any disenchanted squad players with a basic team selection of fielding big man with big man up front. It was not pretty, but it worked.
Villa will be glad Spurs are not back here again any time soon. This makes it 10 wins and a draw in their last 11 visits and Dean Smith, the Villa manager, cannot get his own talisman back from a shin injury soon enough.
If the absence of Jack Grealish for a sixth successive game was disappointing for Villa, the makeup of the Spurs lineup after their horrendous week was always likely to be intriguing.
In making seven changes from the side that fell out of the Europa League with a three-goal second-leg defeat to Dinamo Zagreb, Mourinho pulled no punches. Not only were there four changes from the side that lost the north London derby to Arsenal last Sunday, but youngsters Dane Scarlett and Alfie Devine were also pointedly named as substitutes.
“Two bad performances, two bad results,” the Spurs manager said beforehand. “I feel we need a change, and we need positivity and need fresh minds and need two 16-year-olds on the bench to prove to the other guys we look to the future too.”
That sounded like a barbed comment to those missing out so Harry Winks and Matt Doherty might ask their agents to start scouting around. Serge Aurier and Toby Alderweireld were reportedly ill; it was fascinating to discover whether Spurs could rise from their sickbed.
Perhaps the most surprising inclusion was that of Vinícius, starting in attack with Kane for the first time in the Premier League. It is a long time since Spurs field two centre-forwards in the same league game – more than three years since Kane was partnered by Fernando Llorente for an FA Cup tie with AFC Wimbledon – although Kane dropped off to play in the role of his shirt number for much of the first half.
Despite looking heavy-legged and defensively indecisive in the opening stages, Spurs made the breakthrough thanks to their new forward pairing.
Villa had been threatening to get in behind Spurs, especially down the inside-left channel where the gap between Japhet Tanganga and Davinson Sánchez was vulnerable. Matt Targett slid in to a back-post cross from Bertrand Traoré but could not make a clean connection.
With Gareth Bale and Dele Alli on the bench, Erik Lamela suspended and Son Heung-min missing with a hamstring injury, Spurs had less chance to play through midfield. So when Sergio Reguilón played a long channel ball towards Vinícius and Emiliano Martínez came rushing out of his goal to clear, Spurs at least had men up to capitalise.
Lucas Moura did brilliantly to win the first ball and then, after finding Kane, even better to run on to the return down the left and square the ball for Vinícius to tap in his first Premier League goal.
Villa have been out of sorts without Grealish and did not trouble Hugo Lloris before half-time. Spurs’ confidence increased from the goal, though their play was far from fluent, and just before half-time, Kane came close to heading in a Lucas corner and Tanguy Ndombele mis-hit a looping shot on to the top of the goal.
It was the first time since April 2014 that Villa had not managed a shot in the first half of a home game and Spurs came out looking the more likely to score the next goal.
Kane was granted too much freedom as he was allowed to shoot just wide from 20 yards while Lucas twisted so much as he ran in from the left that Matty Cash, back after five games out with a hamstring injury, fell over. The final pass did not quite reach Kane, however.
Villa finally managed their first efforts at goal as Morgan Sanson, making a rare start since his £14m move from Marseille in January, crossed but Trezeguet could not make a clean connection with his volley. Traoré could not convert the follow-up before his replacement Anwar El-Ghazi showed more incisiveness with a swerving right-foot shot from wide on the left that rippled the wrong side of the side-netting.
When Cash unnecessarily clipped Kane’s heels, with the ball about to run out of play, Spurs had their platform for recovery. The England captain stepped up to the mark to score his 27th goal of a season that could still work out well for the club and their manager. Mourinho’s gamble appeared to have paid off.