Not for the first time this season Spurs took an hour to get going at Brentford, but their point from this game sums up both their best and their worst.
‘Spurs at home, you say? On Boxing Day? A lunchtime kick-off? And eight days after the end of the World Cup? With Hugo Lloris and Cristian Romero rested and Fraser Forster making his first appearance in goal for them and Richarlison injured?’ You can only imagine the extent to which Thomas Frank’s eyes lit up when this fixture at this particular time was thrown up by the Commodore 64 that decides such matters.
But when push came to shove in the first Premier League game back after its enforced six-week break, Brentford couldn’t quite find enough to get the win that had looked so likely when Spurs gave them their two-goal lead nine minutes into the second half. And while Antonio Conte may feel somewhat vindicated over his anger at his team being pushed back into action just eight days after the World Cup ended, the truth remains that the shortcomings displayed during this match were repeats of shortcomings that they were displaying well before the World Cup began.
For an hour at the Brentford Community Stadium, Spurs played with all the nerviness that sums them up when they’re at their worst, giving possession away cheaply, looking vulnerable and panicky every time Brentford pushed forward, showing this strange kind of nerviness that seems to descend over them for periods of games. But when they did click, they served up reminder after reminder of why they can be so dangerous in the first place and almost snatched a win in the closing stages.
Perhaps a lot of mistakes were inevitable, considering the bobbly pitch upon which they were playing. There was certainly a hint of good fortune about Brentford’s first goal. A cross from the left from Bryan Mbeumo found Christian Norgaard at the far post, but his volley would have sailed well wide had it not deflected off Clement Lenglet. Forster reacted by half-blocking with his leg, but Vitaly Janelt was on hand to stab the ball over the line to give the home side the lead.
Right place, right time!
Brentford have the breakthrough against Spurs thanks to Vitaly Janelt 🐝
— Amazon Prime Video Sport (@primevideosport) December 26, 2022
Brentford were good value for their half-time lead, and looked good for all three points when bookmaker’s friend Ivan Toney scored from a corner nine minutes into the second half to double their advantage. At this point, Spurs’ performance had felt like a compilation of their worst bits of the season so far. At points like this, they seem capable of losing to just about anybody, susceptible to any form of press and likely to almost entirely static at the wrong time and then rushing around like recently-decapitated chickens when they need calm heads as well.
But when that transformation comes, it arrives quickly and almost without notice. Twenty minutes into the second half, Harry Kane brushed away one or two World Cup demons with a towering far post header that seemed more or less pushed into the goal by force of will, and six minutes later Matt Doherty’s cut-back was swept in by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to bring them level. It was the best of Spurs, it was the worst of Spurs.
Over the last twenty minutes, having rediscovered their self-confidence midway through the second half of a match yet again, Spurs poured forward in the pursuit of a winning goal. Kane hit the crossbar with a header in the closing minutes, and deep into stoppage-time Son Heung-min’s low shot had to be smartly saved by David Raya. But even for all of this, when Brentford did manage to push forward they still looked capable of snatching the win themselves. That panickiness never really left the Spurs defence. All that really happened was that the midfield got their act back together and stopped the ball getting through to trouble them.
Spurs remain perhaps the Premier League’s greatest imponderables. They are capable of excellent football, but they remain fundamentally hamstrung by the fact that they seem almost incapable of showing themselves until they’ve been playing for an hour. When they do finally defrost and start playing, they are extremely difficult to play against. But at the same time that defensive nerviness is so real as to appear palpable at times. They may well have picked up more points from losing positions than any other team in the Premier League this season, but this only really makes their flaws look all the more glaring.
We’ve already repeatedly seen this season that Spurs are not at the level of the other teams in the Premier League’s top six. They’ve played four games against the other five, and haven’t taken a single point from games against them, having not played Manchester City at all yet. This is a bad habit that needs to be broken. In the space of sixteen days from the middle of January they play Arsenal at home and Manchester City home and away. Should their shonkier side lead them through those games, there’s a strong chance that their aspirations of getting back into the Champions League will be hanging by a thread before spring even returns.
But when they click they click, and their performance over the last third of this game did demonstrate why they are in the Premier League’s top four in the first place. Kane took predictable abuse following his penalty miss at the World Cup, but still leapt to score the goal that gave them a route back into the game. The return of Dejan Kulusevski gave them a little more fluidity in attacking positions, though he may need another game or two to fully rediscover the form that he was in before injury interrupted his season.
There remains the seed of a potential title-challenging team in Spurs, but the fact is that this has been evident for much of the last five or six years without much of a serious challenge ever having come. Perhaps plugging a couple of the gaps in the squad during the January transfer window will make them more stable-looking throughout the second half of the season and help to set aside that feeling that Spurs are only ever in the top four as a placeholder for someone else. On the evidence of yet another Jekyll & Hyde performance in this game, for Spurs at least, the World Cup doesn’t seem to have changed anything whatsoever.