Mauricio Pochettino was smiling as he said the words but do not doubt that he meant the sentiment. “Without Mousa Dembele, we do not exist…Tottenham does not exist,” he said little over a year ago. And for 34 minutes on Saturday lunchtime, the lack of a ‘genius’ (Pochettino’s word, and ours) in the centre of Tottenham’s midfield did make you doubt their very existence. They were stodgy and static while the opposition bustled and bristled, with only a wonderful tackle from Serge Aurier standing in the way of a West Ham lead.
We need a far stronger word than ‘downgrade’ to describe the gulf in quality between Dembele and his deputy Mousa Sissoko, and with Victor Wanyama also missing and Harry Winks not yet ready, Pochettino had no choice but to pair the Frenchman with Eric Dier in Tottenham’s central midfield. The results were predictably stultifying, with Dele Alli suffering by proxy with one of those performances that almost makes you forget he is a) one of English football’s greatest talents and b) on the pitch.
And then Andy Carroll gave the ball away, Christian Eriksen found the gap, Alli completed his third pass of the game and Harry Kane headed in. It was quick and it was devastating. Four minutes later it was 2-0, Jan Vertonghen finding the gap, Alli having a shot saved and Kane tapping in. It was quick and it was devastating. Two meaningful attacks had brought two goals, with West Ham paying the price for showing adventure and leaving the pockets of space that Swansea denied Tottenham last week.
And with that quickfire double strike, victory was practically theirs; this is not a Tottenham side that easily allows 2-0 leads to be overturned, despite Aurier’s determination to make everything far more interesting. And yet Tottenham had not played well, just as they had not played well against Newcastle, Burnley or Swansea, or against Barnsley in the Carabao Cup. Indeed, Tottenham are now unbeaten in their last six fixtures while largely being several different shades of underwhelming, with obvious exceptions against Dortmund and Everton.
A lack of Wanyama, a shadow of Dembele, a ghost of Alli and yet Tottenham have 11 points from their opening six Premier League games, have won possibly the most important game of their Champions League group stage and are in the next round of a competition that could yet prompt Pochettino enthusiasm. To have achieved all that while operating at 80% bodes awfully well for Tottenham and their manager. They have undoubtedly started the season slowly and yet they have somehow almost kept pace with far more impressive teams to the north and west. As Kane said after the game, it is “definitely” starting to feel like an excellent start.
It was telling that Tottenham offered four choices for their man of the match after the scratchy 3-2 win over West Ham – Kane, Eriksen, Davinson Sanchez and Toby Alderweireld. Without Dembele or Wanyama, their strength lies everywhere but the middle of the pitch. They have the Premier League’s most prolific striker, one of the Premier League’s finest creators and the Premier League’s toughest central defence. It augers incredibly well for when the sandwich filling comprises of something a little more appetising than Sissoko and Dier.