Embattled Tottenham win within the surrounding gloom
So, to recap: this was supposed to be the summer when Tottenham broke their spending habits, moved into a new stadium and adopted the personality of a truly elite club.
Instead, Mauricio Pochettino has dragged the same tired, over-stretched team into a new season and the club's new home, originally scheduled for occupancy in mid-September, no longer has a definitive opening date. Spurs may have seemed inactive over the off-season, but they've still found time to lurch from one PR disaster to another. The latest - perhaps also the most insulting - has been over the partial refunding of season-tickets. The Liverpool fixture which was intended to be New White Hart Lane's first has been moved back to Wembley and supporters have been offered a 1/19th refund on all season ticket purchases. Reasonable enough, until you learn that those tickets are now being re-sold at a higher prirce.
Can that be explained rationally? Yes. But could this have been handled more sensitively and used to appease a disenchanted fanbase? Absolutely. Mauricio Pochettino has tried to soothe the situation, promising that his team play well through the adversity and deliver some assuaging points. Well, they better. If Tottenham begin this season poorly, then the atmosphere around them will turn unpleasant in a hurry.
It's a strange situation, really, because it translates to there being either greater pressure on the first-team or far less. Pochettino's players are now responsible for keeping the heat off their bosses, but they're also liberated by the knowledge that, should all not go to plan in 2018/19, they likely won't be held responsible for that. If Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli don't perform consistently well over 50 games and stay clear of injury, then the post mortem diagnosis will be that they never should have been expected to in the first place.
Supporters are smarter these days, they're more realistic about what has to be in place for success to follow; they're understandably frustrated.
Fulham came to Wembley fresh from a reality check. Shahid Kahn's £100m+ investment over the summer had fanned expectations in south-west London, but Crystal Palace provided an immediate reminder that Premier League teams must run before they can walk. Here, clearly burned by that experience, Fulham were less expressive. Content to sit deep and contain Spurs for a long periods, the hosts dominated the early exchanges. Kane had an early effort (correctly) ruled out after a foul by Lucas Moura and, just minutes later, the centre-forward should have had a penalty after Timothy Fosu-Mensah's clumsy trip.
Pochettino found room in his starting lineup for Toby Alderweireld. If there was one silver lining from the transfer-window it was Tottenham's refusal to sell the Belgian centre-half. Levy wanted £60m from Manchester United for the player, didn't get it, and he returned today in a back-three. Form and fitness have been concerns for Alderweireld, his uneasy relationship with Pochettino also bled into his performances last season, but Spurs are unquestionably a more compact, complete and expressive side with him included. Employing three centre-halves against the solitary threat of Aleksandar Mitrovic was possibly overkill at Wembley, but the passing was quick and varied out of defence and Alderweireld's range was key to exploiting space down the Fulham left.
A goal wasn't quite inevitable, Tottenham actually finished the first-half sluggishly, but when it did come it was worth waiting for: Lucas Moura reacting quickest to a fluffed clearance and bending his side into the lead from the edge of the box. It was by far the Brazilian's best moment at the club and, after forty-five minutes of wasting Tottenham's best chances, it was a moment he needed. By that point a drifting Ryan Sessegnon had spun away from Ben Davies and drawn a good, smothering save from Hugo Lloris and then, later, demanded a critical intervention from Alderweireld, but it was a lead Spurs just about deserved.
It was a successful return to Wembley, but it also served to emphasise why the summer inertia has been so galling. Spurs are a fine team full of excellent players who, on their day, are capable of competing with anybody in the country. When it's not their day, though, and when they're fatigued or under-strength, they're prone to periods of blunt, predictable football interspersed with strange defensive lapses. The need for reinforcements wasn't indulgent transfer-lust, then, but a necessary part of evolution. New signings challenge incumbent players, they help accelerate improvement from within and, consequently, are fundamental to any attempt to challenge. Continuity is a strength, not selling first-team players is also clearly to a club's advantage, but there must always be more than that.
Fulham would equalise. Spurs' half-paced start to the second-half was never convincing and, with his most telling contribution of the game, Sessegnon redirected a cross to Mitrovic. The Serbian, flat on his back underneath the crossbar, adjusted smartly to score. What should have been a straightforward afternoon became a slog; a crosses-to-nobody, groans-in-the-air grind.
Tottenham would still come out on top. With the game headed for an underwhelming finish Kieran Trippier seized a free-kick chance from Eriksen and bent the ball beyond Fabri and into the net. A stunning strike and one which provided a desperately needed jolt. Minutes later, substitute Erik Lamela picked up the ball deep in his own half and carved through the Fulham midfield. Lamela is sometimes plagued by a failure to release his passes at the right moment; not this time - he slid Kane in on-goal at just the right moment and finally, finally, finally he had his August goal.
So Fulham were beaten and Spurs had the points, but that final flourish didn't really represent what had preceded it.
There's a temptation now to draw conclusions from every game and to redraw characterisations after each individual 90 minutes. In Tottenham's case though, it's the opposite: we're waiting to see if they can disprove fears and challenge the perception of their limitations. That didn't happen today. There were encouraging signs - Moura played very well in bursts, both Toby Alderweireld and Moussa Dembele looked fit and effective, and Lamela looks to have greatly benefitted from a full pre-season - but there wasn't enough to shift the narrative and neither was this the kind of performance to suggest that Tottenham's ceiling is any higher than it's assumed to be.
Tonight they'll likely finish top of the table, but beyond that we're none the wiser.