Spurs stay out of their own heads to take control of Champions League pursuit

Dave Tickner
Pedro Porro celebrates his goal for Tottenham against Nottingham Forest
Pedro Porro celebrates Tottenham's third against Forest

Spurs were presented with a big opportunity today.

Following stumbles from Manchester United (expected) and Aston Villa (unexpected), this home game against Nottingham Forest became hugely significant in the Champions League battle going on behind the runaway top three.

It’s the sort of scenario to give Spurs fans wind. It’s precisely the sort of scenario ripe for doing something extremely Spurs. This is a club never averse to looking in the mouth of any gift horse sent its way and not liking what it sees, thank you very much.

For much of the first 50-odd minutes here, it looked like being another Spursy tale. They led through a Timo Werner-created own goal from Murillo, who stabbed past his own keeper from three yards minutes after narrowly failing to give Forest the lead themselves from 70. On such sliding doors moments can entire seasons pivot.

Werner for his part has long since rendered the permanent option bolted on to his initial loan move to Spurs a no-brainer. He is demonstrably not the 30-goal striker Chelsea once thought they were getting, but he is without question an effective wide forward and in extremis central option for a team playing the way Spurs like to do.

Most teams chasing a top-four finish would, having gone ahead against a team currently to be found 17th, settle into their work and take control of proceedings. Spurs are not most teams, and they chose a different approach, which was to barely bother at all with much of anything for the remainder of the first half.

Chris Wood scored his now customary goal to equalise under so little pressure that he was still presumably confused about how easy the Premier League suddenly is for him that he was overcome by existential angst, which is the only way to explain his subsequent decision to absolutely leather the ball into the upright from half-a-yard rather than just score as seemed infinitely easier.

Alas for Forest, Spurs would get to the break level, and if there’s one thing we do know about Ange Postecoglou’s peskily hard-to-pin-down team of mischief-makers is that a disappointing first 45 minutes is generally going to be followed by a very good 15 minutes at the start of the second half.

Nobody else has scored more than 11 Premier League goals in the first 15 minutes of the second half this season. Here, Spurs scored their 16th and 17th such goals to take full control of the game and a big step towards Champions League football next season.

Because Spurs are Spurs, these goals were scored by a centre-back playing as a number 10 and a right-back playing as an inside-right.

Micky van de Ven celebrates a goal for Tottenham against Nottingham Forest
Micky van de Ven celebrates against Forest

Spurs also achieved this having replaced both their starting central midfielders. Neither Yves Bissouma nor Pape Sarr had played well in the first half, but it was still a brutal decision from Postecoglou.

Undoubtedly, though, it was a correct one. Rodrigo Bentancur and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg were a key point of difference from the soft underbelly Spurs displayed in the first half. Hojbjerg is almost certainly in his last couple of months as a Tottenham player, but is also on current form very probably their best midfielder.

That’s a bit worrying, really, but fair play to him, we guess, because he looked a player left unmoored by the dramatic shift from Conteball to Angeball.

There was a time back in the autumn when everyone was banging on about Angeball. It probably did all get a bit much. It’s probably, though, gone the other way now and not enough is being said about how big an achievement it would be to steer an almost entirely new-look team back to the Champions League having sold the player who single-handedly kept them afloat last season.

It’s not new to note just how different this Spurs team is compared to last year’s, but the sight of Hojbjerg being incongruously important actually hammers it home. It’s curious precisely because players from last season haven’t really been very important at all beyond a few obvious stars like Heung-min Son and Cristian Romero.

Five of this starting XI had never played for Spurs before this season. Sarr and Bissouma were never more than bit-part players, and Pedro Porro was widely viewed as a Conte-specific wing-back who couldn’t possibly adapt to the very different requirements of a Postecoglou full-back, drifting inside to the half-spaces rather than loitering out wide.

Spurs are a team that frequently don’t really work. They have only very, very occasionally put in anything like a complete performance for 90 minutes. They remain, as we noted after the West Ham draw, a team that quite often only functions for 15 or 20 minutes in a game. But those 15 or 20 minutes are often really quite something.

And it’s worth reiterating that this team remains a very early work in progress. They’ve been helped of course by Manchester United and Newcastle falling off a cliff while Chelsea yet again fail to launch, but they’ve taken care of their own business far better than anyone could have expected given the way last season ended and the subsequent loss of Harry Kane.

Spurs have matched last season’s points haul with seven matches still to play, and perhaps most impressively given the loss of Kane’s 30-goal contribution, are only five goals away from matching the goals scored column.

Tottenham are closer now to the title race than they are to United back in a distant sixth. They are almost certainly going to finish fifth at worst, and fifth is very likely to be good enough. Really is worth remembering that before a ball was kicked this season nobody could have reasonably expected this.