A period of three games in seven days can prove very eventful in football. For Tottenham Hotspur, this mid-September week has certainly proven so.
A tough return to Europe’s biggest stage
It began last week at Wembley Stadium no less. Spurs were somewhat overawed by the occasion surrounding their Champions League return at the national stadium and looked like rabbits caught in the headlights as AS Monaco stormed into an early 2-0 lead which, despite an athletic Toby Alderweireld-headed goal on the stroke of half time, they never recovered from. They may have felt hard done by losing 2-1, but that would be ignoring the excellent organisation of Monaco, who executed their game plan with distinction.
This game has not only put the pressure on Tottenham, who now cannot afford to slip up in their next Champions League outing away at CSKA Moscow, but also brought into the spotlight problems which had already plagued them and which continue to persist.
Spurs ran the game. Possession was held with ease for long periods by the team playing in all white, yet to say that they looked menacing would be a gross overstatement. Ultimately, Monaco defended with relative comfort.
Spurs, as they had done in their previous serious test against Liverpool, lacked the movement in between the lines of midfield and defence needed to open up space in the final third for a chance to be created in. Too often they relied on the long passing abilities of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen to play Spurs out of defence with lofted deliveries – reminiscent of those one might have expected to see when Peter Crouch led the line for the lilywhites – and the searing pace of Kyle Walker to open up space down the right hand side. By the hour mark, these had become all too predictable.
Mundane going forward
The lack of movement by Spurs’ forwards was immensely frustrating as it sucked venom out of potentially dangerous attacks. Furthermore, Spurs’ midfield, until Mousa Dembele’s introduction, seemed loath to attack in a more direct manner. Eagerness to receive the ball was lacking among midfielders, who preferred to rely on the defenders or deep-lying midfielders. Erik Lamela couldn’t be accused of this, and although his consistency is improving rapidly as he enjoys his fourth season in English football, his performance at Wembley lacked the required level of precision expected in a game of this magnitude. Dele Alli tried and failed far too often to waltz his way through Leonardo Jardim’s side’s defence which, by the final whistle, began to smack of overconfidence on the part of Alli. It was far too fragmented and understandably many Spurs fans left the ground feeling Mauricio Pochettino’s men lacked a cohesive game plan going forward.
A serious concern took the form of Harry Kane. In a team guilty of lacking serious composure, with Heung-Min Son, Dele Alli and Erik Lamela amongst the main culprits, Kane was arguably the worst. It was galling to see him skew a shot from close range straight at the Monaco goalkeeper, which he would have buried normally and which would have put Spurs on level terms with the French side. At times he looked a shadow of the fearless forward who burst onto the scene with his powerful running and prolific scoring in 2015. Many fans called for him to be dropped and the Dutchman Vincent Janssen put in the first eleven in his place.
Kane fighting for his place?
Yet the dilemma of dropping Kane was a tricky one. It’s true that he has not carried the same confidence since the start of England’s European Championship nightmare this summer. Too often too hesitant to shoot, against Monaco he lacked the self-belief and brashness which fuelled his rise to the top. He was working hard but with seemingly little self-confidence. Would dropping him have solved this issue? More likely it would have knocked his confidence further; he didn’t need an incentive to work harder – that wasn’t the issue.
Pochettino persevered with his English talisman. His faith was clearly not poorly-founded given the 60 goals Kane had scored up until that point. Kane repaid the Argentine’s faith by scoring the winner in Sunday’s game against Sunderland. What is more is that he was unlucky to only score the one following two point-blank saves made by Jordan Pickford in the first half – for many there was one thing Kane was lacking, luck. Kane’s goal was no spectacular effort, more a reward for being in the right place at the right time and a just reward for his efforts up until that point.
The sentiment that Kane was one lacking fortune became all the more significant in the 87th minute of that match versus Sunderland. Catching his studs in the ground, Kane’s poor luck persisted as he incurred a serious injury to his ankle ligaments, which looks set to rule him out for two months. Spurs’ golden boy, the player dubbed “one of their own”, looks set to miss out on a number of Champions League games as well as London derbies, in which he has an almost peerless record. Those championing his removal from the side may be dining on their words currently…
So, Vincent Janssen. The summer signing is set to get his chance to justify the money Spurs paid for him this summer. Up until Kane’s injury he looked largely encouraging. An impressive substitute appearance on Spurs’ debut against Everton turned that game in the lilywhites’ favour and earned him a start in Spurs’ next fixture against Crystal Palace. Despite missing a golden second half chance, which looked easier to score rather than skew wide as he did, Spurs fans seemed content with the performance of their understudy to the golden-locked Kane that day. Since then, he has had a number of cameo appearances, including the recent games against Monaco and Sunderland. He has grafted hard without reward.
The only frustration was that he’d failed to open his account, especially after he lashed the ball over the bar embarrassingly against Sunderland. In that game, Spurs recorded 31 shots, scoring only once, again demonstrating a distinct lack of composure in the final third – Janssen was by no means the only guilty party of such profligacy.
Against Gillingham in the final installment of the week-long trilogy, Janssen got his first chance to lead the line for Tottenham from the outset. Determined to stamp his mark on the game, Janssen stormed around with purpose. Having missed a regulation header early in the first half, his frustration augmented and it was a pain to watch for the White Hart Lane faithful. They rallied behind him, making it clear that their faith was in him – they had no alternative.
He responded well, continuing to go painfully close as well as linking play well. Janssen’s strengths differ to Kane’s in that his preference is to play with his back to goal. Broad and strong like an ox, he is able to hold the ball up and lay the ball off to his teammates, and this proves a fantastic asset when playing with the likes of Erik Lamela and Heung-Min Son, who like to make runs in behind the striker. Furthermore, his tenacity when pressing is unrelenting, largely explaining Pochettino’s zeal in signing him.
Janssen’s hold-up play is a bonus, but what Spurs will miss are Kane’s goals. To replace these, the likes of Son, Lamela and Alli will need to contribute. Should they do so, the pressure on Janssen will lessen, putting him more at ease and boosting his confidence.
He eventually opened his Tottenham account from the spot earlier in the second half, and although this may not have been his preferred way to score his first goal for the club, it will relieve at least some pressure from his shoulders.
One complaint over his current style could be his strong preference for using his left foot, and even Gillingham’s defenders seemed to have worked that out, showing him onto his weaker right foot. He should have scored more than the solitary penalty on Wednesday evening, but the most obvious solution for his failure to do so was nerves, which naturally accompany the anticipation of him starting. These will mellow with time – Spurs fans must continue to back him no matter what.
Time for Spurs to become ruthless
Breaking out of Spurs’ recent spate of lacking composure will not be easy. There is no quick fix to a problem which likely stems from their failings at the end of last term. Interestingly, Pochettino has implemented new pre-match routines practicing build-up play, utilised before this point by attackingly effervescent teams such as Liverpool – a small detail which demonstrates it has clearly become a concern to the coaching staff.
The introduction of Janssen may give Spurs a new lease of life going forward, as may the 5-0 win against Gillingham which saw the blooding of five new players, four of whom came from the club’s academy. Confidence breeds confidence, and the lilywhites will hope that an injection of confidence will lead them to a third consecutive win when they take on Middlesbrough on Saturday.