Tottenham’s season has begun to flatten out. The heady days of the Champions League are over, for another year at least, and the FA Cup semi-final has been lost. The collective pulse has dropped and the Wembley crowd for the visit of Watford was noticeably more sparse. But there remains work to do and a top-four place to secure.
It seems a long time ago that Watford were the Premier League’s bright young thing - when Richarlison was the consensus signing of the summer and Marco Silva, with his popped collar and studied, Iberian cool, could do no wrong. Life is different now; Waford have done what Watford do, winning just three times in the whole of 2018 and not once away from home since November.
Even in their current form, this looked like a late season gimme for Tottenham.
But then, nothing is ever straight-forward for them at this time of year. While most of the recent questions raised relate to their ability to cross the lines in games of consequence, one of their understated flaws is a tendency to get lost in self-pity, allowing big game disappointment to fester. It’s something which has to be cured. Winning silverware may be the surest sign of evolution, but so too is a team’s resilience after marquee games in which defeat is sometimes just a fact of life.
Spurs need to better under the brightest lights, that’s for sure, but the hangovers need to stop, too.
Fortunately, Watford were charitable here: with one of his first touches, Orestis Karnezis fumbled a routine catch and, via smart square pass from Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli side-footed Tottenham into the lead.
Still, the sulk persisted. Given the stress he places on intensity, Mauricio Pochettino will have been frustrated by his players’ inability to exert any sort of authority. They had Watford down, but they let them wriggle. Hugo Lloris made two good saves, one each from Andre Gray and Richarlison, and rushed from his goal smartly to deny the Brazilian late in the half.
At times, Tottenham were dreadful. They were everything a cynical world was expecting them to be: soft and afraid and, for long periods, second best. Losing to Juventus was tolerable, given the circumstances. Failing to overcome Manchester United was irritating, if not entirely unexpected. But this? This was dismal - inaccurate, flippant, and the kind of performance which hangs over all the recent progress and suggests that, deep down, there is still some fragility.
Seconds after half-time, Watford stepped off the cliff voluntarily. Harry Kane miskicked at a first chance, made by Son Heung Min's quick burst, but was free to score seconds later when Kieran Trippier, who had recovered the loose ball, found him unmarked six yards out. A nice move from Tottenham certainly, good composure from Trippier too, but still another self-inflicted wound.
Nevertheless, even with a two-goal lead it was never really convincing. Richarlison punted over from underneath Lloris's crossbar and Gerard Deulofeu galloped in on-goal, only to be ruled marginally offside. Over the course of the evening and with greater efficiency, Watford might have scored two or three times.
True, might is a false economy at this time of year and nothing really matters beyond the score, but Tottenham's lack of control was troubling. Nine days ago, Manchester United took the lead on this ground and never looked like surrendering it. For all of Jose Mourinho's flaws and natural advantages, he does know how to secure a game. Kane, Eriksen, Son, Alli; they were all neutered in a way which Gray and Richarlison noticeably weren't.
Christian Eriksen has been directly involved in nine goals in his last eight games in all competitions for Tottenham (5 goals, 4 assists). Pivotal.
It looked for a time, in those final months at White Hart Lane, as if Tottenham had developed that steel. They would bludgeon opponents, hitting them with a flurry of punches until they backed off. In hindsight, though, maybe that was really a measure of their attacking verve, rather than their overall security? One game is not enough to identity a tactical defect or a coaching failure, but it's still something which requires attention.
Nobody will remember this game. Nobody will talk about it ever again. Ultimately, Spurs were good enough to extend their lead over Chelsea to five points and to move to within one of Liverpool. That's the objective here and, if Pochettino chooses to focus on longer term realities, fair enough. Once the summer begins though and the rumoured squad refresh gets underway, he might want to cast his mind back to this most uninspiring of nights.
His Tottenham are now an excellent side, often well worth their billing, but that new identity is still an awkward fit sometimes.
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