Kyle Walker takes a throw-in towards the end of the match in front of the Shelf. Whatever his faults, he always finds some energy if Spurs are chasing the game late on. Eric Dier is in front of me, in space, about 10 yards away from the thrower, but the midfielder is looking at the ground. His eyes are weary, his expression pained. He doesn’t want the ball. Despite his relative youth and inexperience, all season his broad shoulders have carried the weight of expectation and the burden of performing in the clatter and clutter of a Premier League midfield. Such is the fierce strength of Dier’s intensity, when he came near the Shelf you could almost warm your hands by it. Here it had become a guttering candle. Eric Dier had reached his limit.
I’m not blaming Dier for the defeat against Newcastle. He did not have a good game but that can be said for half the team and after all, his near post header from a first-half corner put Spurs ahead. Anyway, after what he’s put in lately, I’d forgive him anything. But this apparently insignificant scratch to the veneer of Spurs’ polished season summed up the team’s performance in a nutshell.
Newcastle forced their way back into the match, repeatedly slicing through our midfield with a series of fast, direct counters. In a five-minute period, four last-ditch tackles denied clear goal opportunities, two by Alderweireld, one by Rose and one by Vertonghen. The game was turned on its head after Tottenham’s first half superiority.
This was the moment when Spurs ran out of steam. Tired legs and tired minds, exhausted by the strain of relentless decision-taking and the pressure of being really quite good. When the legs give out, it’s usually because the mind has gone first. The pressing game requires countless by-the-second decision-taking – where should I be, where is everyone else, do I go or sit tight? That’s before you get the ball and switch instantly into attack and create mode, let alone think about moving into the top four with a win. You could almost hear the rush of the wind as the season caught up with us.
You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. Since August wave after wave of opposition attacks have foundered on the rock that is Eric Dier. The magnificence of his contribution showed up in stark relief by its absence. A couple of weeks ago I described Dembele as the most influential midfielder in the league right now. My goodness me how we missed him, not just his strength or touch but also the way what he does makes the team so much better. He holds to give others a precious second or two to get into place, his barrel chest a counterpoint to Alli’s lithe skills, Kane’s touch and intelligence, Eriksen’s movement. He makes us better.
This season I’ve frequently used the word ‘drive’ to describe the big difference in midfield when we have possession. Dembele, Mason and Alli look to get the ball forward, to make something happen, to impart impetus into our tempo. Yesterday, we had too many players who did not make their mark on the game. I like Tom Carroll, the way he scurries around, always makes himself available and looks to pass early and forward. His ball inside the full-back for Rose in the first half was typical, that exaggerated body position, the care and precision of the pass. Yet as the game went on he made no difference and was substituted into anonymity.
They all faded. Alli full of flicks – ‘I won’t bother breaking my stride, I’ll just volley this pass 20 yards to Kyle over there’ – but little influence. Eriksen too, Kane not in the game enough although he had a couple of decent shots. Lamela’s EL hat-trick against Monaco was fun, the third was particularly sweet. Yesterday he drifted infield where on Thursday with more room he was so effective, here he became clogged up with the others as Newcastle cut down the space. Time and again our one-twos were easily blocked and we passed through gaps that didn’t exist. Width would have helped but we never did anywhere near enough to shift the Newcastle defence out of position.
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Fans were muttering darkly about this return to the Spurs we know and love, always doomed to fail just as we think we might have turned a corner. In reality this failure points up how consistently well we’ve played up until now. It also proved what many of us have felt so far. We have a fine, highly promising side capable of taking on the top four if everyone is right on their game. There’s little margin for error, although the defence have been resilient of late. Dier off the pace, Mason and Dembele absent and that left a big hole. Kane was isolated. Son came on as a sub to show why Poch did not pick him as a starter. He looks stiff-legged and anxious, trying too hard and so failing to do anything much. Kane remained isolated therefore.
And much as I love him Hugo was off yesterday too. The first goal found him back on his heels so he could only watch a long cross then push out a tame close-range shot straight to Mitrovic. Late on Perez shot from wide, from that angle I was certain the ball would go wide as Lloris parried his low near-post shot, only to see it roll in. It was a fine effort from a tight angle, low and hard in the spot close to their bodies that keepers dread, but Hugo has saved so many of those in the past….
Hugo’s distribution was poor when we need our captain to exude confidence from the back. I get that he is trying to pass the ball out rather than just kick it away. That succession of efforts to the left were probably a pre-planned tactic. It’s just that if he’s going to pass the ball, then he has to be judged as you would his team-mates. Part of that is all about making good decisions, and he didn’t.
Newcastle played well in the second half, discovering a pressing style and purposeful movement that has been missing under McLaren. They should move up the table if this and their excellent reserve keeper are anything to go by. However, Spurs should have put this one to bed in the first half with Kane, Rose and Lamela failing to capitalise on our superiority.
Plenty to be optimistic about. 14 games unbeaten is a start. So far this sequence of winnable matches between now and the New Year has not gone well but it’s very close at the top of the table and the quality remains. We’re learning, let’s not forget that.
For Pochettino, this is a step into the unknown. How will this relatively inexperienced squad cope with the physical pressure of the Christmas and New Year period (including 3 games in 7 days in the second week of January) and the mental pressure of the expectation of success? Dier, Kane and Eriksen need a breather but of course we are short of cover, especially up front. This harks back to my concerns about our business in the last window. Inflexible at the best of times, his squad gives him limited opportunities to freshen it up.