1. What’s the best way to treat Tanguy Ndombele? There probably isn’t a right answer, but Jose Mourinho’s reticence towards the midfielder is still understandable. If his aim is to tease a better attitude from the club’s record signing, then giving him a free pass into the side wouldn’t make any sense.
He left him out again here and with good reason. He needs to be properly conditioned for Premier League football, but he also needs to earn his right to play. Mourinho has had a funny week, but this was an entirely logical decision, even if it forced him to field a less than balanced midfield.
2. …’less than balanced’ being euphemistic. Giovani Lo Celso and Dele Alli, with Moussa Sissoko as the only insurance? If Tottenham were guilty of being over cautious against Manchester United, then this signalled their intention to be much more bold. Sissoko isn’t really a holding player. Lo Celso is too aggressive to be an orthodox central midfielder. At his best, Alli just plays free and spare and pretty much wherever he wants.
3. Fortunately, David Moyes just circled the wagons. If Mourinho had picked a midfield without a backwards gear, then Moyes responded with one incapable of driving forward. Mark Noble’s box-to-box days are long in the past, Declan Rice is cut from that modern, deep-lying playmaker cloth, and Tomas Soucek looks more like a holder, too.
4. Perhaps with due cause. While West Ham have been fairly adequate at defending set-pieces and preventing counter-attacking situations, only Southampton have conceded more goals from open play than their 35. It suggests a few things: difficulties in front of defence, issues protecting their full-backs and a general, team-wide porousness through the middle.
Maybe that’s the kind of midfield you have to pick when nearly all of your players are playing beneath themselves and when you can’t count on any protection from your forwards. Felipe Anderson gave one of ‘those’ performances against Wolves, offering only a 70-minute shrug in front of a two-man midfield, and he was rightly dropped so that the department could be reconfigured. At least Moyes is being reactive.
And for a long time it worked too, because West Ham defended well as a block, preventing Spurs from working any angles or triangles or manufacturing any sort of attacking momentum.
5. That wasn’t just about West Ham sitting deep, though. Tottenham’s early issues could be tied to that midfield. With Harry Winks rested and Ndombele not included, Sissoko was typically the deepest of the three and charged with taking the ball off the defence.
One nice rake to (an offside) Serge Aurier aside, the difficulties were predictable: you need a bit of subtlety in that role, a bit of passing variation, and that isn’t among Sissoko’s strengths. He would ultimately have a good game, covering ground well and carrying the ball nicely on occasion, but that was the wrong kind of responsibility for him and, as a result, Tottenham plodded in those early stages.
6. Still, it was hard to see the opening half-hour as anything other than a reminder of where Tottenham are ideologically. They’re still able to field a lot of good players, especially in attack, but the understandings just aren’t quite there. Harry Kane is being tempted deep, in search of involvement, and their most dynamic players – Son and Moura this evening – are generally stood still when they receive the ball. It’s still chalkboard football, rather than anything of any instinct.
In fact, the only real chance of the first half came from a little Moura ad lib, when he shimmied out of a tackle and brought a good save from Lukasz Fabianski from distance. It summed them up: their system isn’t yet ready to force any fractures, it still has to be off-the-cuff.
7. One of Moyes’s strategies was for his players to sit off the ball. Even deep in their own half, it was rare to see a West Ham player offer a tackle. Instead, they’d invite the Spurs ball-carriers either to take them on – which few of them had the confidence to do – or otherwise just encourage them to push a pass into a safe, wide position.
Negative it may have been, but it was also smart. Moyes knew what his team would be facing at White Hart Lane. As a result, the midfield didn’t lunge or commit, forcing Spurs to play around a block that they didn’t have the precision to pass through – and on the one occasion they did before half-time, VAR came to the rescue.
8. A half-time statistic: Giovani Lo Celso had 61 touches of the ball, Harry Kane just 19. He’s not fit, that’s plain to see, but he won’t enjoy being marginalised like that on his own pitch and, as a statement of how disconnected he currently is from this team, that’s hard to ignore.
He’s been here before, battling for fitness and clunking awkwardly around the pitch. In the past, though, he’s survived through those periods while still scoring important goals. Now, he isn’t even getting chances. Occasionally a ball breaks to him – as it did shortly after the restart – but at his best he manufactures them for himself, with a quick couple of touches to set up an angle, or something spectacular.
He would find a way onto the scoresheet eventually, yes, but only after the game had broken open and it’s not typical for Kane to have to rely on circumstantial opportunity.
9. Do we blame Mourinho for this? No, that’s harsh – at least it is if it’s not mitigated with the recognition that Kane’s whole demeanour is of a player who has been relentlessly overplayed. He stays on the pitch because his contract is so incentive-based and always has been. If he’s not playing, he has no chance of getting paid as someone of his standing should. At the same time, though, his injury troubles and his gentle decline over the past eighteen months is very obviously a legacy of Spurs’ lack of depth in his position.
10. The own-goal was really too comedic to dwell upon, but – having spent years watching Christian Eriksen hit the first man – Tottenham fans will at least have enjoyed the sight of a whipped corner being put in a dangerous position. Good height, good pace. Good luck? Of course, but the delivery warranted it.
11. What could Michail Antonio do if he played for a really good side? He turned 30 in March, so we’ll never know now, but his utility abilities surely could have been applied to greater use further up the table. In this team, with the way they attack, the only chance to really appreciate what he does is through the prism of those barrelling runs from deep or when he takes on three defenders at the same time and somehow still retains possession. He does that really, really well.
But what if he was surrounded by players who could do that kind of running for him? If he played from a proper attacking platform, rather than in single bursts forward? He wouldn’t be a world-beater, but it’s an interesting thought; he’s a much better player than many seem to assume and this was another night when he didn’t get the chance to show it.
12. Giovani Lo Celso showed exactly how good a player he is. He was rightly Man of the Match and, in amongst Tottenham’s frail, fragile systems, he gave a performance of probing intent, full of self-belief and the determination to change the game.
And he did change the game. It was his corner which spun in off Soucek and, if not for VAR, he would have had a sly assist for Son’s goal in the first half. And a second, had Kane not pulled a second-half shot beyond the far-post.
Giovani Lo Celso, what a little player. pic.twitter.com/7TGZCC1sSJ
— LP ☬🛫 (@thfclp__) June 23, 2020
But what happened between those moments and after them was more important. Spurs are a fearful team at the moment and he, by contrast, is fearless. He wants the ball. He’s not afraid to fail. And no matter what the state of the game or the score, those characteristics never change.
He’s a man on an island in many ways. In a lot of Tottenham’s games since the turn of the year, he’s been the sole attraction and the only functioning player. Often the only reason to speak positively about the side. That was the case in Burnley, again in Leipzig and for long periods, true again tonight. But his abilities aren’t just being exaggerated by context. Every time he touches the ball the mind wanders to a time when he might be part of something more competent and – without question – that really will be worth watching.
13. Kane did get his goal in the end. The finish was smart, neat and familiar and the fifty-yard run to break free certainly tested that surgically repaired hamstrung. A good moment, then, and one which – from his reaction – he badly needed.
The points above stand, though, because while it was a goal Kane took well – at the end of a half during which, admittedly, his shot volume grew and his involvement rose – it didn’t dispel any of the concerns about the functionality of the attack or his role within it. It doesn’t look right. His control is awkward, his touches in the box aren’t what they were and the connection with his teammates isn’t quite right.
Part of that will be the injury. Some of it will be the general problems at Tottenham and the difficulties of adjusting to a new head coach. But an element of this struggle is about Kane himself and the reassurance over that is yet to arrive.
137 – @HKane has now scored 137 goals in 200 appearances for Spurs in the @premierleague – the only player in the competition's history to have scored more in their first 200 games for a club is Sergio Agüero (138). Talisman. #TOTWHU pic.twitter.com/cBGXF2fFG4
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 23, 2020
14. Top marks for Erik Lamela. He’s a yappy little pain and one of the snidest players in the division, but he was the one who retrieved the ball on the edge of his own box, who then fed Son Heung-min, and when Kane slide the ball home for the second goal, was the only Tottenham player who had made a supporting run.
He has critics, he always will, but if you like him, you love him and you’ll always forgive the turnovers, the self-indulgence and all the other frills.
15. There was a moment in that second half which summed up modern West Ham, because it’s rare indeed that a team in their position has the chance to bring players like Manuel Lanzini and Felipe Anderson off the bench. Or that, in their desperation, they don’t even bother to bring Andriy Yarmolenko or Jack Wilshere onto the pitch.
But this is the club that Sullivan and Gold have built; that’s what it looks like. It’s become about names, reputations, big deals, big wages and lots of attention. And invariably also about other fans pointing and laughing, mocking all the hubris.
No matter how many times these transfer lunges fail, the lesson is never learned and those in power retain their belief that if they could just get things right, if the stars align for just a few summer months, they’ll be able to parlay that ludicrous stadium lease and the broadcasting contract into some kind of London relevance.
It’s not going to happen. Not while these people own the club. West Ham are circling the Premier League drain yet again, and that’s not a legacy of this season or even last, but of a culture of superficiality which never seems to be replaced by anything more substantial.
16. Declan Rice has a problem, too. If this is the club’s midfield future under Moyes, then he can’t be part of it. For the sake of his own development, Rice has got to play for a club who operate from the front foot, because otherwise his evolution will be very one-dimensional. He’ll stop being a credible deep-lying playmaker and just become one of those generic stoppers, known purely for what they do without the ball.
Tonight, he touched the ball 55 times and completed 85% of his passes. But does anyone remember a single one of them?
That’s the problem. Footballers become their surroundings over time and, if he’s to stay, Rice needs West Ham to be a better forum for his abilities.