Tottenham hold Huddersfield at arm's length to show the Premier League's new normal
The objective for Tottenham on Saturday was simple enough: to keep their Premier League campaign pointing towards a top-four finish and not to let their eyes drift towards the radiant glow of next Wednesday's Champions League's tie with Juventus. No muscle tweaks, no sloppiness, no complacency.
- Mauricio Pochettino has reached 100 Premier League wins as a manager in 197 games – the joint-6th quickest alongside Kenny Dalglish. Only Jose Mourinho (142), Alex Ferguson (162), Arsene Wenger (179), Rafa Benitez (181) & Claudio Ranieri (187) reached it in fewer games.
David Wagner's Huddersfield are having a contradictory season. On the one hand, the league table shows this season to have been a success. They were an unlikely playoff champion in 2017 and this year has seen them tussle admirably in a much higher weight class. They've quite rightly earned plenty of goodwill, not least for upending Manchester United and, more recently, a superb win against West Bromwich Albion. The bottom-half is congested enough to create a false sense of security, but they arrived at Wembley with their head well above water.
From another perspective, though, they've often been seen for what they are at this level: losing games with minimal fuss and, occasionally, with an all to meek approach. Conveniently, none of their results better exemplify that than the reverse of this fixture. Back in September Spurs cantered to a 4-0 win, playing expressive and penetrative football, but never having to leave second gear to do so.
Mauricio Pochettino's team began brightly enough. Within ten minutes, Heung Min Son had cut purposefully through the Huddersfield half and, after the ball had been pushed out to the advancing Serge Aurier, Dele Alli just failed to connect inside the six-yard box. Minutes later, the South Korean provided another vivid illustration of the technical gap, shaking his hips on the near touchline and leaving Florent Hadergjonaj in a muddled heap.
Key to Huddersfield staying out of the relegation zone this season has been their capacity to learn on the job. Against Liverpool back in February, they neutered themselves with a far too passive approach, sitting overly-deep and surrendering the ball often. Here though, that experience might have worked against them: Alli caught them playing too high up the field and he opened their defence with a through-ball which sent Son flashing towards goal. A bad patch of form seemingly in the past, he calmly stepped around Jonas Lössl to give Tottenham the lead.
One of the reocurring themes this season has been criticism of clubs who are overly negative, but within that goal lay a reminder of how precarious the balance is between self-preservation and ambition. For many of these overmatched sides, playing too aggressively generally comes at a heavy price. Winning neutral hearts is one thing, winning points quite another.
A further discussion has also concerned the recession of the Premier League's middle class; the thick line which has been drawn between the elite and the rest. Now, it seems that there are teams who contest for the title or the Champions League places and then those who could be relegated. There's very little in between. Huddersfield aren't safe by any means, but they aren't among those in the deepest trouble, either - and yet they share identical frailties with many of the teams above and below them. The Stokes have gone, the Evertons too; this world seems to comprise only of the good teams and the ones who, respectfully, are just waiting to be knocked over by a mightier opponent.
Huddersfield find themselves in the latter category and, for them, this game was over within ten minutes of the second-half beginning. Again, Son would put the ball in the net, but only after a remarkable ball from Harry Kane. Apparently contained near the touchline, he carved a perfect cross around and beyond the visiting defenders, leaving the South Korean free to head home at the far-post. Kane is a near-peerless finisher, but the creative side of his game - in both thought and execution - is broadening all the time.
This was a match of isolated class rather than concentrated excellence and his pass, comfortably, was its highlight.
To give Huddersfield their due, they weren't entirely passive. Shortly before Son made the game safe, Tom Ince drew a fine parry from Hugo Lloris and, a couple of times, a better touch at certain moments might have led to further opportunies. Nevertheless, there was never the slightest suggestion that they would leave Wembley with anything tangible. Tottenham may not have been at their best, but they were never required to be. Whenever the game drifted or Huddersfield built up what might have become a head of steam, Spurs pressed the pedal down and accelerated back out of reach.
A job done for them, then, and a situation handled perfectly well, but maybe the kind of contest which, for whatever reason, is becoming too much of a Premier League staple. Tottenham were pretty good - very much so in patches - but the game's demographics are becoming terribly binary.