Tottenham 0-1 Newcastle: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 25th August 2019 8:28

1) The obvious sub-text of Tottenham’s draw with Manchester City was their performance: they were largely awful, but were efficient enough to take their chances as they fell and, somehow, resilient enough to withstand City’s heavy shelling.

Mauricio Pochettino was after something much less passive here. In came Son Heung-Min, returning after suspension, and Lucas Moura too, who is very much a situation-specific player within this squad, but whose direct, aggressive style was the logical choice against a visiting defence expected to pack the middle of the pitch and sit deep.

It seems to be a sign of the times for Pochettino. Unfortunately, no matter which changes he makes, he can’t push his side beyond third gear. They run in the same way, they attempt all the same inter-changes, but all the intangibles are conspicuous by their absence. Those no imagination, no conviction, and no confidence.

 

2) Newcastle were everything Spurs presumably thought they’d be. The headlines will all pivot around their resilience and while, clearly, this was a dramatic improvement on that terrible performance at Norwich, they showed shades of balance at White Hart Lane which, more than once, made the home side look vulnerable.

Even before Joelinton scored the game’s only goal, Sean Longstaff had brought an excellent save from Hugo Lloris and, with the advantage, Spurs did look sporadically vulnerable to the counter. Small steps, yes, but this wasn’t just a backs-to-wall smash and grab.

 

3) The nature of the game had the home fans calling for Giovani Lo Celso early. An understandable reaction, but most likely they’ll have to be patient – mainly because of how busy Lo Celso’s summer has been, but also because that’s just what Pochettino does. He doesn’t hand out starting positions easily. He didn’t for Son and still isn’t for Moura.

That’s not Lo Celso’s fault. He’s subject to the usual laws of acclimatisation, but until Christian Eriksen’s future is settled, Pochettino won’t be able to commit fully to the reconstruction of his midfield.

Maybe, in time, that could actually work in his favour? The nature of his transfer, with the bulk of the fee not due until he joins permanently, has made him more novelty item that saviour. That helps. But a slow and steady adaption, in which his week-by-week performances aren’t scrutinised, is also the responsible way to treat a player who has a steep learning ahead.

He’s the new toy, isn’t he? You want to get him out of his packet and see what he can do. He’s special, though, so let Pochettino take his time, handle him with care, and read the instructions first.

 

4) The beneficiary for now is Erik Lamela, who started his third game in a row. Lamela was a mixed bag in both of his previous outings. He was frustrating against Aston Villa, but ultimately forced the mistake from Jack Grealish which won Spurs the game. A week later, he was largely peripheral against City, but was involved enough to score the first goal and create the second.

This was not his day, though. Referring to Lamela as divisive is almost cliché by now, but today his detractors had a point – at least in respect to the the role he was being asked to perform. He’s too unpredictable to play as a No.10. Whereas a Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen-type has established traits which allow the attacking players to make anticipatory runs, Lamela ad libs his way through matches.

Sometimes that’s a virtue, because it can make him difficult to defend. On Sunday, though, it was disruptive and seemed to have an inhibiting effect on Tottenham’s attacking rhythm. Too often he was picking the ball up in a deep positions and tasked with finding a way through a forest of Newcastle defenders. He pirouetted and he pushed a few passes around, but – save for some encouraging opening minutes – with almost no consequence.

When he has to think, it’s a problem. Lamela is gifted, that’s not contentious, but he’s definitely become more suited to open games, in which goals have already been scored and an opposition is compelled to do more than just defend.

 

5) Well done Joelinton, a nicely-taken goal to get off the mark and provide a quick correction after last week’s terrible miss.

But Davinson Sanchez? At fault for that John McGinn goal and probably culpable again here. There’s something about his partnership with Toby Alderweireld which feels wrong. They’re fine players, Alderweireld is an exceptional one, but together – and without Jan Vertonghen – they’re prone to a couple of those moments each game. Vertonghen’s greatest virtue is probably his passing into midfield, so his absence doesn’t create any obvious defensive deficit, but the chemistry just isn’t right when he’s not there and that continues to show.

At the point at which Christian Atsu delivered his cross, Sanchez had drifted well beyond his proper position, leaving Joelinton with five yards of space on the edge of the Tottenham box. Freeze frame with Atsu in possession and it just looks bizarre – and, taken a stage further, hardly an endorsement of Pochettino’s decision to keep Vertonghen on the bench.

 

6) Although, to be fair to Joelinton, perhaps he played a part in unsettling Sanchez? What the television cameras didn’t pick up was the jostling, physical challenge he presented almost from kick-off. He played much of the first-half in isolation, adrift from his support, but he jabbed and poked at his markers, proving a nuisance even when the ball was nowhere near him.

To what value? Who knows, really, but even though Spurs dominated possession for long periods, their centre-backs were kept occupied by those little skirmishes and neither were allowed to ease into the game.

 

7) One of the stranger attacks being levelled at Newcastle supporters is this ‘need for patience’ line which a small group of journalists continue to peddle; it only really makes sense if the last twelve years are completely ignored.

Like any other coach, Steve Bruce will take time to have a proper effect on the first-team. But expecting supporters to clap along and sustain themselves on micro positives is, at best, ludicrously disingenuous. It pretends that Ashley – and by proxy all the decisions he makes – are deserving of goodwill and, ultimately, benefit of the doubt.

Clearly that’s not the case. Especially so because this was an appointment made on the basis of geographical synergy, rather than any footballing merit. In that context, it deserves to be treated as a continuation of the past, rather than as the dawn of something different.

Today was good, but let’s not make it more than it was or pretend that – suddenly – every Newcastle fan disappointed by what happened over the summer should be pausing for thought.

He won at Spurs, that’s a brilliant result. But even Pardew did that. The real challenge is to be innovative and to infuse a neglected fanbase with the belief that their side is going somewhere. So defend like that next week. And the week after. Sometimes Newcastle will be outmatched, that’s their reality, but it’s right to expect more than competence.

Applaud Bruce today, he’s earned it, but the conversation shouldn’t end here.

 

8) We need to talk about Spurs’ mental lethargy.

Spanning this season and last, a lot of time has now passed since they last began a game properly. Leicester in February, perhaps? Cardiff in December? That can be partly explained by injuries and squad limitations, also the participation in the Champions League, but it’s become such a common problem that it deserves more than just to be waved away with platitudes.

 

9) This wouldn’t have been a circled game on Bruce’s calendar; it was probably one in which performance mattered more than the result. After what happened against Norwich, Bruce’s imperative was probably just that Spurs should have to work for their goals and be made to suffer for their points at a sweltering White Hart Lane.

He got that and much, much more. It’s easy to dismiss what Newcastle did on Sunday by describing it as reductive, but the quality of what they did was much improved. As a game, it was very similar to the 1-0 defeat Rafael Benitez’s side suffered at Wembley last season – just without the Martin Dubravka mistake. Every weekend, half-a-dozen teams try to block up games in exactly the same way and often without the same success. It’s an accomplishment rather than a cheap trick.

Newcastle did a very fine job of protecting their own box, with a shuttling cast of three midfielders dropping into the space in front of the D and denying Spurs any central space. From there, Pochettino’s players generally went wide and were aimed towards Bruce’s three centre-backs. They tried 38 crosses, almost all of which were dealt with comfortably.

It’s not the kind of strategy which reinvents the game, but it worked and it wasn’t just about Tottenham being off-colour, Mike Dean, or VAR.

 

10) Moreover, it’s not something which anybody should really complain about. It is always the responsibility of the favoured side to not give away cheap goals and to avoid putting themselves in that situation.

It’s exactly the same for Liverpool and Manchester City. Generally also for Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. It’s a feature of the modern game and a reflection of its various disparities, not a situation unique to Tottenham.

 

11) But we’ll ‘do’ VAR, because we have to.

At least it was consistent on Sunday. Mike Dean’s failure to give a penalty and VAR’s refusal to correct him was – on the outrage scale – the same as the decision not to award one to David Silva at Dean Court. On the one hand, the PGMOL are staying true to their claim that VAR’s interference will be limited. On the other, though, it’s going to be a very difficult sell if incidents like that are waved through.

Both those decisions were wrong; both were obviously penalties.

Newcastle deserved that bit of good fortune, they defended really well, but while the premise of VAR-lite is welcome, this is now becoming a terrible muddle and, to nobody’s surprise, another weekend ended with angry, disenchanted fans baffled by the operating procedure – and that’s the very worst outcome, because clarity matters more than anything else in this situation.

 

12) Still, let’s not create any excuses: Spurs played 803 passes and how many of those took a Newcastle defender out of the game? 10, maybe?

It’s difficult playing against packed defences, nobody’s pretending otherwise, but Pochettino has that kind of precision in his armoury and, yet, his side keep coming up blunt. Spurs were slow and uninventive and lacked any sort of instinct in attacking positions. The game’s statistics tell a story of hollow dominance but, if ever a situation can exist, weren’t they the ones being bullied? Newcastle’s defence dictacted the terms of that game – they decided where the football would be played and which Spurs players were allowed to do what.

 

13) So, Allan Saint-Maximin pulled his hamstring after 16 minutes of a game played in 30 degree heat? You don’t have to be Raymond Verheijen to find that a bit strange.

It was a great shame, because the shape of the game suited his electric pace and because he’s portrayed as such a roguish character, it’s only natural to want to see him play. Alas, he’ll now be gone until after the international break.

 

14) Those Newcastle centre-backs really are impressive. One of the advantages for Bruce was that he inherited a backline which has been so well coached. To his credit, he inserted Paul Dummett with little disruption on Sunday, but the relationship between those players still looks so strong and, given how favourably Harry Kane’s form has been discussed and how sharp in front of goal he’s claimed to be at the moment, it was to their great credit that he finished the game having made no impression on it whatsoever. Read the same for Lucas Moura and Son Heung-Min.

Maybe Spurs have their issues, but they’ve played that badly in the past and still got points from mistakes and a lack of concentration. By contrast, Schar, Lascelles and Dummett were superb, and Federico Fernandez didn’t was solid enough when he came on.

 

15) The Christian Eriksen situation needs sorting by Tottenham. It’s at the point now where it doesn’t even really matter what the decision taken is, just that one is actually made. Either he’s sold and leaves, or he stays and starts.

There’s something very end-of-cycle-ish about Spurs at the moment and Pochettino has spoken of the need to regenerate the squad. If Eriksen isn’t committed to being part of that, then it makes sense to enact the plan to replace him sooner rather than later. Maybe that’s Lo Celso at the tip of the midfield. Perhaps it’s Dele Alli. Maybe it’s more detailed than that, and would require an adjustment to Harry Winks’ game or Moussa Sissoko’s role.

As it stands, the club are voluntarily remaining between eras.. Eriksen is being given limited game-time and while he still has influence to exert, it’s coming at the expense of whatever’s supposed to come next.

 

16) Is it time to worry about Pochettino? Not his job security – that would be absurd – but his effect on these players. Kieran Trippier departed over the summer, citing mysterious, behind-the-scenes circumstances, Jan Vertonghen looks mightily hacked off, and the tone and intensity of the team has been several degrees off for months.

Take the Champions League final out of the equation and – relatively – this has probably been the most discouraging run Tottenham have suffered through since Pochettino arrived. When everyone was heading to Madrid, that became easy to ignore and to reason away as the trade-off for that unlikely success. Now, with a North London derby on the near horizon, no World Cup hangovers to blame and another performance desperately short of verve, invention or any other positive sporting quality, things have changed.

It’s hard, isn’t it. Pochettino has done so much for the club. Most fans, I assume, are caught between loving him unconditionally for that and, just for the moment, wondering whether his pouting and his heavy-handedness with players who’ve earned his loyalty is damaging the very culture that he’s created. Let’s not go overboard, these aren’t the last days of Jose Mourinho, but this is certainly becoming more of a conversation.

 

Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter

 

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