The ball is played out of defence to Victor Wanyama. He’s about 40 yards from the Tottenham goal, near the touchline, facing the wrong way. Three West Brom midfielders swiftly cluster around him. The game is long gone by now, Spurs triumphant, but they sniff a chance to make something happen.
The Kenyan controls the pass perfectly and sways gently like long grass in the wind, shielding the ball as he does so. His opponents check back and hesitate, and in that moment Wanyama has created half a yard of space with which to first turn and then play it without fuss to an team-mate advancing in the middle.
Wanyama puts the defend into defensive midfielder. The guy who protects his backline at the expense of the side’s creativity. Or that’s what everyone says. Yet this solid block of muscle with football boots is airily running the midfield. I could just as easily picked any moment of any Spurs player on the ball. They reeked of self-assurance and bravura. Confidence seeping from their pores, assurance coursing through their veins.
We came to White Hart Lane expecting a dour struggle. Instead Spurs painted a modest masterpiece, no fanfares or bright lights but a gem for the true aficionados of the Spurs Way. Tottenham’s football flowed with grace and power, insistently inventive, always played on the run, a torrent of ideas that slowed down only for a couple of short periods in the second half, and then only to draw breath.
West Brom are our bogey side, shorthand for, they are highly organised and Spurs have consistently failed to break them down. Last season the 1-1 draw on a Wednesday night at the Lane saw our title momentum grind to a halt. It wasn’t the Chelsea game at all. That night we not only gave away a daft goal after going ahead, we ran out of ideas. Towards the end the players had the ball and were looking around not knowing what to do next.
On Saturday the contrast could not have been greater. I wouldn’t want to single out individuals: they all played to the highest standard, played for each other, played for their manager, played for the shirt. The first half was a delightful haze of movement, blurred white shirts dashing by onto passes that were invisible and impossible from the stands but crystal clear to those amidst the hurly burly on the pitch. Almost everything came off. We won the tackles and second ball, we spread fifty yard passes from boot to toecap, one-twos in the tightest of spots. Spurs had the lot.
This season as last, Spurs have had plenty of possession but have slowed down when we get to the edge of our opponents’ box. The big change recently, which I would argue is one of the two changes that has turned us into genuine contenders, is that we have men making runs into the box and we are finding them. I say men – Dele is barely more than boy. He’s not the only one but attacking instincts released by Pochettino, he is hard to stop and impossible to control, as Chelsea found out to here cost. Eriksen is creating an endless supply of diagonal balls into the box for him. If only his first half goal had not been offside, what a stunning memento from this match that would have been.
We’ll have to make do with his scooped pass for the fourth, a one-two with Kane and finished by the hat-trick striker on the volley, made because they just get each other perfectly. Kane scored three, missed another two that were easier that than the ones he put away. His body shape for his second, Spurs’ third, horizontal to get over the ball after Walker was rewarded for his refusal to give up a lost cause by the goalline. He left nothing to chance and made an awkward hit appear straightforward. His movement was a joy throughout, ghosting into space in the box where none seemed to exist, or coming off the front to allow others to move up past him.
The other change is of course going three at the back. For Pochettino this is primarily about the attack. It gives Spurs the platform to play, for the best pair of attacking full-backs in Europe to get forward and for Dele to have freedom. Our centre backs can all play. They eagerly pushed up into the space vacated by a retreating West Brom side, as one goes up the other moves across to cover. The sole blemish on the afternoon was Vertonghen’s injury. He beat the ground not so much in pain but in frustration that he would not be able to play for this team for some time. Right now any time out is a curse. He’s been good all season, outstanding in the last ten games.
Defeating West Brom was in its own way as strong an indicator of our progress as beating Chelsea. Hard to beat, we swept them away. Building up a head of steam in December and January is the new Spurs Way. Compared with last season, we are stronger physically and mentally, able to remain inventive when minds, hearts and legs grow weary, all this powered by massive self-belief. Add the improvements in individual performances – Walker, Rose, Dele, Vertonghen, Eriksen (playing so well right now) – Wanyama’s influence and the continued form of Kane, Lloris and Alderweireld, and we have become genuine contenders. Second in the league having beaten the top side two weeks ago is a good place to be.
When asked if this was the best performance since he took over, Pochettino agreed.Spurs v West Brom ‘17 could be become one of those ‘remember when’ performances admired by the cognoscenti and true believers, like the first half against Feyenoord in 83 or Gazza beating Oxford singlehandedly (or so it seemed) in the Cup. Not famous or a glory glory night but one of the best examples of pure Tottenham football that you could ever wish to see. Beautiful to watch.