The search for the lost heart of Tottenham Hotspur is over. It was there all the time, waiting to be found by three young footballers, Nabil Bentaleb, Harry Kane and Ryan Mason. They knew all along what it means to be Spurs and their performances in Sunday’s defeat of Everton not only showed their more experienced team-mates the path to follow, they ignited and inspired the crowd. Together, as one, as it should be.
This was Spurs’ best performance of the season, superior to the big win over QPR because the Toffees are a much better side. Tottenham were disciplined, keeping a shape that ensured Everton had few opportunities but flexible enough to quickly turn defence into attack. Yet what stood out was the spirit and commitment of the whole team, playing with drive, application and purpose. Regardless almost of the result, this was a remarkable transformation compared with the festering sore of last month’s apathetic and alienating efforts.
The afternoon also revealed Adebayor’s deluded whinging about how our troubles were due to supporter negativity as the narcissistic self-indulgence it really was. The intoxicating mixture of the young men’s effort and noise from the crowd punctured once and for all the smug complacency behind his comments after the Stoke defeat. Players and managers spend their careers in crowded football grounds yet they never get it. Supporters and players aren’t different breeds. We’re inextricably linked, feeding off the emotional connection between us. This reciprocity isn’t about cause and effect: sometimes they get us going, sometimes we lift them. On the good days you can’t tell where one begins and the other ends, and this was a very good day. The alchemy created an exhilarating, emotionally charged atmosphere that lifted the spirits of player and supporter alike, in particular aiding a flagging side in the final 10 minutes to resist a series of Everton set-pieces as they searched in vain for an equaliser.
And this is what matters, truly matters, long after the final whistle. Matches, players, seasons come and go, fortune waxes and wanes, but keep the beating heart of a football club pulsing and you have the foundation of future success. The form of even the very best footballers ebbs and flows but if playing in navy blue and white means something to them, deep inside, they can find the strength to overcome adversity.
Heaven knows we’ve waited a long time for Bobby Soldado to score. We’ve gone through disappointment, frustration and anger to sympathy and condolence. Scoring goals on instinct since he was kid, once the flow dried up, he’s had no idea what to do about it. He’s like an old friend who has been through such bad times that you are compelled to look away as you wish him well because the pain in his eyes is too much to take.
So when the moment finally came, what mattered more to him, the billowing of the net or the ecstatic reception from the crowd? It was the noise, the song, the shared joy of a homecoming almost that surely will stay with him, that will mean he’ll give that little bit more when harder times come along. We had not rejected him despite it all. After the genuine celebrations in the corner, he took a long time to walk back to the centre circle, savouring each step, deep in reflection despite the elation all around him. The demons were banished. The half-time whistle blew a few seconds later and he skipped off to the dressing room.
Kane and Bentaleb were outstanding throughout. Kane has been ‘a prospect’ for a few years but I did not think he could come on so swiftly. It’s like a child’s growing spurt – you see them every day yet suddenly they physically and emotionally mature. It’s part of nature but still we are surprised. And pleased.
No pace but his close control was always a threat to an Everton defence whose weakness for backing off proved to be their undoing. Spurs began the game in good order but just as it seemed nothing was going to come from our play, and a goal down by this time, Kane took matters into his own hands and ran at them. Suddenly the back four were exposed. Howard could only push his hard shot to the feet of Eriksen who with care and precision placed the ball into the far corner.
Kane began the match on the right, helping Lennon stifle the dangerous Baines. As the half progressed it became clear Azza was doing a fine job on his own, thank you very much, so Harry could drift in and be more involved. The midfield needed assistance as Everton had the lion’s share of possession – here’s Harry back to help out. Soldado could be isolated on his own but wait, Harry’s there to lend a hand. 50-50 in midfield becomes a Spurs ball because Harry’s in. Defence is suddenly attack, on the break Harry’s set Lennon free for his only run at the defence. On the break he slips Bobby in and the finish across the keeper is just perfect. Later, Barkley’s dangerous in the centre replacing the ineffective Eto, this could be trouble -wait! Harry’s got him. Outstanding.
Bentaleb was a presence throughout. He is always available, keeps the ball moving and was instrumental in establishing and maintaining a decent tempo in our play. That’s the mark of a quality footballer. He too has matured, if not overnight then at the World Cup. In his demeanour he seems 5 years older compared with the end of last season.
Mason had less of an impact but played his part in the most solid midfield of the season. He and Bentaleb sought each other at the end and hugged, mutual congratulations for a job well done. Lennon was excellent, dutifully up and down his wing, less winging and more tackling back it has to be said but goodness knows Chiriches, a mistake waiting to happen, needs all the help he can get. Right-footer on the right, playing well – who knew?
Eriksen did well too, working hard from kick-off. Thought there was a different look in his eyes, more determination. As a unit they excelled, pressing high when required but mostly funnelling back to set up the barricades 40 yards out. Lots of calling to each other, encouragement, where to go, plug a gap. Soldado’s goal was preceded by an equally significant piece of play, where Everton had the ball for an extended period but were forced to go from side to side, unable to find a gap. Pushed back, they lost the ball and Kane did the rest.
We kept our shape and discipline throughout. This helped the back four immeasurably. Davies and Chiriches could tuck in or if they were brought out knew someone would slot in to cover. Vertonghen was clearly inspired by proceedings, visibly growing into the match and dealing with the second half pressure that came at him.
Lamela was the only problem. On for the tired Lennon and clearly given strict instructions to keep the shape, he just couldn’t resist. After a disciplined start, he left his post and charged around committing needless fouls. He could easily have been sent off rather than booked. Baines was livid with him for a couple of tackles and I don’t blame him. This weakness could end his PL career.
Much has been made of Spurs’ conspicuous lack of success on a Sunday following a Europa League fixture but the foundations for this win were laid on Thursday night. Bentaleb, Davies and Lennon had valuable game time while key pairings of Kane and Soldado up front and Fazio and Vertonghen at the back had time to get used to each other.
I’m pleased for the manager that an incredibly brave decision to play Mason and Bentaleb in the engine room came off. Also his preferred set-up needs the forward able to get into the box and drop back, a role Kane fulfilled admirably. It’s a telling indictment of Sunday’s benchwarmers and confirmed that Pochettino does not have the type of midfielder that he wants. The young players listen and respond. Not asking a lot but too much for some, apparently.
Without getting carried away – Chelsea hot favourites tomorrow – there was so much to enjoy on an afternoon that began with a conspicuous lack of optimism in the stands. They found what it takes to be a winning side. Nothing but credit all round.