Yesterday afternoon Spurs won 2-1 with a late goal from Christian Eriksen. It so happened Sunderland were the victims but insert the name of many other teams below us in the league and the sentence works. 2014-5 is Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 season.
Spurs have snuggled down in their comfortable two-onesie, one size fits all. Seven out of our last eight league wins have been by the same score. That period also includes three 2-1 defeats and it encapsulates, as did this game, where we are right now: we’ll score but are never safe because we always concede. Good football and, even better, the number of late goals means there’s hope, but fine margins and the niggles of doubt remain, tapping you on the shoulder, whispering in your ear, a reminder of the frailty of the growing, developing side that I wrote about earlier this week. A long way from the finished article, if 2-1 to Spurs means one step back and two forward, I’ll take that.
This win had a couple of other features of our season so far. Scoring early through Vertonghen’s deflected shot, we failed to capitalise fully and allowed Sunderland back into the game, conceding possession through a series of unnecessary free-kicks, one of which Larsson popped over the wall and into the top corner. Dominating the second half, it looked as if our efforts were in vain then Eriksen stroked home the winner, yet still we relied on a combination of Lloris’s excellence and wasteful finishing by our opponents who should not have been given a sniff of goal let alone match-winning opportunities.
Spurs’ positive start was boosted by a third minute goal, Vertonghen pouncing on a mishit clearance. His ungainly-struck shot struck a defender and sailed into the opposite corner. With two up front and Johnson behind them, Sunderland’s 3-5-2 offered admirable attacking intent but it gave us space in midfield throughout. Instead of pushing on however, it’s a peculiarity of this team that we fight to dictate the play then, once in charge, allow the tempo to drop. We don’t do slow very well.
Our two best players, Stambouli and Rose, tried to inject some urgency whenever they got on the ball. Rose was on top form going forward in the first half. One move was outstanding. Under pressure from a dodgy Lloris throw, he turned danger into attack with a first-time flick facing his own goal then in an instant was 15 yards further down the touchline to receive the return ball. His cross found Eriksen who missed the chance.
These forays weren’t typical of a stodgy first half performance. We, I say we, Dembele mostly, conceded a number of free-kicks, although in his defence Chris Foy is a referee who thinks physical contact is no longer part of the game. The most pointless of these, a ludicrously late challenge by Vertonghen on Defoe when any danger had passed, let Sunderland back in the match with a perfect top corner curler.
Generosity extended to one of our own – ex-striker trains in the off-season to stay fit. Only at Spurs could he then sign for our very next opponents, bringing with him intimate behind-the-scenes knowledge of our plans. Defoe always scores on his debut, except this time he didn’t. He’s always offside however, and in this he was true to type. Unnecessary to look for that edge as in the first half it seemed like he had the drop on Dier, drafted in to cover at centreback and looking terribly young. Poyet was desperate to play him yet Sunderland didn’t give him a decent through-ball all game.
Eriksen had another shot saved and Kane, quiet by his standards, hit the post with one of his now trademark low shots from just outside the box. Yet we were sloppy and sluggish for the most part, mainly because Pochettino tinkered with the formation of Kane up front and Eriksen in the middle that has been balanced and effective during our recent good run. To accommodate an admittedly attacking line up with Soldado up front, Kane had been moved back to centre attacking mid with Eriksen on the right. As a result he was less involved. We bucked up noticeably when he came inside later in the game. We’re not mature enough yet as a team to handle those changes.
Also, Chadli returned to his ineffectual, seven-touches-where-two-will-do early season persona. A new dairy-free diet has apparently turned his fortunes around. Perhaps he’s fallen off the wagon and guzzled a pint or two of best Jersey gold-top.
Second half, Spurs upped the tempo, pushing Dembele further forward secure in the knowledge that Stambouli could cope on his own. The Frenchman looks like an old-fashioned midfield destroyer, a gimlet-eyed and round-shouldered muscular sentry in front of the back four. Until now he’s been hunting the man, yesterday he hunted down the ball. Alert to every Sunderland move and keen to pass forward once he breaks up a move, he played really well.
A long period of Spurs’ second-half superiority created little. Optimism turned to frustration. Kane was more involved now and came close. Walker pushed up and Eriksen tried to create in the centre. Townsend came on to generate width and momentum, with Adebayor emerging from the Tottenham Room 101, undeserving of the boos despite his questionable commitment. Mostly it looked like the only thing that had changed in his absence was that his socks were pulled over his knees. However, he ran about a bit later, and ran in the right places. His problem was being too static in the box, waiting for a cross rather than seeking space, but the same could be said for many in the cluttered area. Say what you like about him, if we don’t sign a striker in the next couple of weeks we could be grateful for his experience and involvement later in a season where we are playing 9 games in January alone.
Still, we did keep going and although many of the crosses were cleared, at least they came in from different angles and we did get to the byline on several occasions, which can’t be said for Spurs’ efforts in the past. At the back, a word of praise for Dier who improved as the match went on, clever enough not to get sucked into reckless challenges by Defoe and atoning for his one big error by a saving tackle moments after he had given the ball away. Alongside him Vertonghen continued his current of good form that has made a major contribution to our recent results.
Then the winner. Sunderland were victims of their attacking instincts. Late on, their number 3 pushed right into our box. He didn’t quite get to the ball but Townsend did, whereupon he launched into a 60 yard run into the space where the defender should have been. In a classic Bloke Behind Me moment, someone a couple of rows back was abusing him for wasting the ball even as his perfect crossfield pass was being stroked into the bottom corner by Christian Eriksen. A lovely goal. Talking of which…
Even then we failed to shut up shop. Danny Graham, Sunderland’s cut-price version of Soldado (the striker who can’t score) brought a fine low save from Hugo when he should have scored. Then in the last minute, a crazy incident. You know how when the keeper comes up for a late corner, the opposition never scores despite an empty net? This time with Pantellimon stranded, Vertonghen burst from the back onto a perfect through ball from Paulinho and rolled the ball into the gaping goal. Bewilderment more than anger in the stands as it was turned down after the players had completed their celebration and the announcer had given the goalscorer!
We were right in line. Clearly onside. I questioned my own waning powers of observation and understanding as I left the ground. Perhaps the strain and stresses of watching Spurs all these years has taken its toll and I’m finally slipping slowly into pleasant delirium. It was disallowed by a cocky linesman because with the keeper upfield there was only one defender between Verts and the goal. Except he was in his own half when the ball was played to him. Diabolical decision but reassuring that I retain a tenuous grasp on my sanity.