If Spurs are to achieve anything this season, and after yesterday’s win against Palace the prospects look brighter, it will largely be down to improvements in defence. The spotlight always shines on the gloryboys up front but last season’s comedy capers at the back can’t be repeated this time round. We can’t or won’t buy a striker but we have invested in defenders. 2-1 was odds on for last season, this term it’s 1-0 to the Tottenham.
Fast forward to 75 minutes. Spurs are one up, deservedly so on the balance of a game that improved as the minutes passed, but Palace are set up to counter attack. They’ve hit the post once, now they push up in search of the equalizer.
When the going gets tough, Eric Dier gets going. He and Jan Vertonghen in particular played their best football when they were tired and under pressure. Davies was strong on the ground and in the air. Excellent and frankly pleasantly unusual as in the past we have so often collapsed as soon as we get ahead. Dier, 21 years old and in an unfamiliar position, played like an old hand.
Last year I castigated Vertonghen for being the old hand who refused to take responsibility. When we scored four against Leicester then imploded, he was shrugging and moaning when he should have taken charge. Yesterday he flew around the box, anticipating and clearing. Alli cleared, Jan waved his encouragement. He’s found something to play for.
Son’s fine goal rightly garnered the headlines but I discovered the best moment of the match on the way home. Thanks to the wonders of modern science and my Times goal app, we watched the highlights while waiting on the southbound Victoria line platform at Seven Sisters. That cross shot that we on the Shelf all thought hit the post, Hugo really had saved it. The Park Lane sang his name so we thought he did but I couldn’t believe how good that save was, low to his right, a well-struck bouncing ball. He was impeccable yesterday, on and off his line.
Spurs began well enough. Plenty of circulation in midfield, always best when we move the ball with a good tempo and for the most part we succeeded. Kane headed over from a corner, 12 yards out and unmarked, but it was hard to pierce the Palace defence. They don’t press high, preferring to drop back and swarm around the edge of their box. This worked. Our attacks ground to a halt in a fug of indecision, Chadli having 17 touches when two might do, Son always a danger but apparently paranoid about using his left foot, so turning into trouble too often. Many players play off the main striker because it’s a soft option but it’s his perfect position and Pochettino used him well, allowing him freedom to come off the wing or start centrally. Either way, Palace could not pick him up and he linked well with his team-mates.
We missed the width from Walker and Davies who stayed at home to counter the attacking threat from Bolassie and Zaha. I can barely recall Davies crossing the halfway line. Last season Pardew’s Newcastle had the better of MP. Yesterday Pochettino’s tactics were spot on. It gave the front four a platform and also enabled Dele Alli, nominally a DM alongside Dier, freedom to get forward. Vertonghen brought back memories of two season ago by filling the spaces as Palace funnelled back. Also his substitutions had real impact. Eriksen kept busy and took the game to our opponents as Chadli was flagging. Unusual that Chadli should get the hook, and quite right too.
Early days but to me Alli is the best prospect we’ve had at the club since Bale. He has two hallmarks of a great midfielder, a natural effortless poise on the ball, head up and aware, and the ability to inject drive and forward movement whenever he gets on the ball. As with Bale, a love affair starts to blossom….
Deadline-day rumours suggested Lamela was on his way to Inter, only for Pochettino to block the move at the last second when it became clear Berahino was staying at West Brom. Judging by his last few efforts, his mind was already in Italy. Yesterday he showed commendable discipline and focus, working hard and never hiding. Much of what he attempted didn’t come off, and while I’m pleased to see him tracking back, his defensive positioning is naive.
After yet another run floundered on the rocks of the hard-tackling Palace defence, he beat the ground with his fist in frustration, whether this was at the toughness of the tackling or his own inability to find a way through I’m not sure but decision-taking is the root of the problem. The great goalscorers rely on icy instinct when they approach the box. The mind of, say, a Greaves or a Sheringham, is empty of conscious thought at that crucial moment, instinct takes over. Lamela’s mind is full of fireworks and whizz-bangs, a psychedelic cacophony of colour and images, sending him all over the place. In the end it’s all too much and he doesn’t know what to do.
But often enough he was around to make a difference and making a difference is his biggest problem. Finding himself as centre defensive midfield on the edge of our box, he hurled everything into a block, fell over, got up again and still had the ball. Head up now, the ball to Eriksen, just on as sub, was swift and accurate. Eriksen found Son and in full stride he shot through the keeper’s legs to score the winner. Two passes took the ball 60 yards in a fraction of the time it takes to read this. Like all good pass and move, it was simple and electric.
Good position, he used his left foot, in it goes. The Korean commentators on the gantry behind us gabbled in joy as they punched the air. Playing to the crowd like pantomime dames, they just happened to have a Korean flag handy. Bit like 5Live’s curmudgeonly Alan Green whipping out the cross of St George whenever Rooney scores. Judging by the number of Koreans in the stands, Stubhub are going to be sold out for the rest of the season.
Pochettino, suited and booted because his mum was over, sat down once we had scored. Most managers would have been up and shouting themselves hoarse. I guess it’s the Argentinian way but hasn’t he seen our defence. This time he was right to be calm. We held out with a few scares, a fine win and unbeaten since the opening day.
Through Levy’s incompetence we don’t have either an extra striker or midfield experience. What this game confirmed is that we have ambition and determination in spades. Spurs have relied on young players coming to north London and bettering themselves. Son has enthusiastically embraced the opportunity, we know what Kane et al can do, maybe Lamela is finally getting the message too.