Tottenham: Are we sure… there’s cause for concern?
The Lilywhites were perhaps fortunate to return to the capital with all three points, but a win’s a win and Mauricio Pochettino will be happy.
It felt like a big three points were earned at St James’ Park on Saturday. Kicking off their campaign with the same fixture as this time last year, Tottenham were, once again, victorious against Newcastle with goals from Jan Vertonghen and Dele Alli, the second consecutive season he’s scored in the first game.
Spurs, however, never seemed fully in control of the match. The Magpies were threatening on the break against Tottenham’s high defensive line, and were unfortunate to lose.
Kenedy could have equalised when sent through by Joselu — save only for a poor first touch — while Salomon Rondon watched on hopefully as his deflected shot sailed over Hugo Lloris only to cannon off the crossbar in the final few minutes.
Mauricio Pochettino can feel vindicated for starting five of his nine World Cup semi-finalists, though, and Tottenham arguably performed above expectations after a disappointing transfer window, in which they became the first side in Premier League history not to make a summer signing.
Therefore, are we sure there are still reasons to be concerned?
Dele Alli looked sharp
Perhaps the biggest reason for initial concern prior to kick-off was the personnel Pochettino had available. Whether the likes of Vertonghen, Alli and Eric Dier were fit enough to start remained a mystery in the build-up to Saturday’s game, but all three made the starting XI alongside Harry Kane and World Cup-winning captain Lloris.
Although Dier suffered from cramp late on and Kane cut an exhausted figure leading the line, Alli’s match sharpness was the biggest reason for optimism.
The 22-year-old had a somewhat disappointing tournament in Russia — despite his goal against Sweden — and he wasn’t expected to start against Newcastle, but he justified Pochettino’s selection with the opening goal and an influential performance.
I am happy in the way the players arrived after the holidays, and Dele [Alli] was one of them. He has been strong and focused and he has shown good quality today – Pochettino speaking to BBC Sport.
As Kane struggled to impose himself on the game, Newcastle’s back four still focussed their attentions on the striker, which helped Alli find space in dangerous areas.
For the first — the 33rd game in which he’s scored and Spurs have gone on to either win or draw — he found a trademark pocket of space at the back post to nod Serge Aurier’s cross over Martin Dubravka and could have had a second, making a late run into the box and failing to get a proper connection on Christian Eriksen’s lofted pass.
Dele Alli vs Newcastle:
- 61 touches
- 39 passes
- 3 dribbles
- 3 tackles
- 2 shots
- 1 goal
Alli continuously asked questions of the Newcastle defence with his runs beyond Kane into the box, and tormented DeAndre Yedlin on the Magpies’ right, looking physically fit in his defensive contributions and mentally sharp in the final third throughout.
Tottenham were defensively disorganised
Alli’s match sharpness and general influence, however, contrasted the defensive disorganisation at the other end of the pitch. And it’s perhaps not something that will continue to plague them as the season progresses, but it does lend itself to immediate concern.
Davinson Sanchez and Aurier were both at fault for Joselu’s equaliser, for example. Matt Ritchie was given too much time to get his cross away, and the ball itself was a striker’s dream, but the Spaniard should never have been in a position to guide it beyond Lloris.
Vertonghen failed in his role as defensive leader, and Sanchez — despite initially trying to play Joselu offside — didn’t push up at the right time and subsequently played the Spaniard on, allowing him to find space between himself and Aurier.
KEY STAT: Davinson Sanchez was the only Tottenham player to fail to win a single tackle against Newcastle.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, however. For Kenedy’s key chance, Spurs’ defenders were guilty of flocking to the ball and ignoring the Brazilian, who was left in acres of space on the left. Sanchez failed to clear the ball, and Aurier’s positional ill-discipline was exploited with an incisive Joselu pass.
Ultimately Tottenham’s high line didn’t pay dividends and it took only simple passes over the top from the likes of Ritchie and Jonjo Shelvey for one of Joselu, Kenedy or Rondon — after his introduction — to find space in behind, particularly in the channel between Sanchez and Aurier.
It could just be rustiness and a lack of match practice with this particular back four, but Newcastle should have got more from the game and the space left in behind doesn’t bode well against Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon this weekend.
Harry Kane needs a break
Arguably the biggest cause for concern was Kane’s performance. And not just because it was August. The striker notoriously can’t find the back of the net in the opening month of the season — his blank against Newcastle extending the drought to 988 minutes across 14 games — but he was generally off the pace on Saturday.
Although Pochettino tried to diffuse concern, saying that Kane “is in his best form whether he scores or doesn’t score,” the England captain was, on the whole, anonymous and didn’t trouble the Newcastle back four other than a couple of shots.
Sluggish in the final third, Kane’s passing was sloppy at times, whilst he was often second to loose balls and seemed both physically and mentally drained.
In truth, the striker hasn’t yet rediscovered his best form since an ankle injury suffered back in March — despite a World Cup Golden Boot — and clearly needs an extended break after rushing back into action.
It makes for worrying viewing given that Kane unnecessarily played the full 90 minutes on Saturday, with this theme set to continue as Son Heung-min now departs for the Asian Games, thinning Pochettino’s options further.
Are we sure?
In the context of Tottenham’s heavily criticised transfer window, Pochettino said that “there’s no reason to not trust in [their] squad.” And based on this performance, he’s justified in saying so as continuity was the order of the day at St James’ Park.
Tottenham’s attacking play was slick and Alli looked a threat. Whilst disorganisation at the back is cause for immediate concern, long-term it’s nothing to fear as it’s a shortcoming that further match practice will eradicate. The possible re-introduction of Toby Alderweireld, too, is a negating factor.
The biggest reason to be worried, though, is Kane’s fitness. He’s clearly in need of a break that he probably won’t receive, which could have negative effects on the rest of his season.
Aside from this point — which could ultimately find resolution come September when the goals are expected to flow — long-term reasons for concern are small as Spurs seemingly picked up where they left off.
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