Tottenham shrug off their Champions League hangover
The morning after the night before. Juventus have come and gone from Tottenham’s world, taking their radiant glow with them and a rainy Dean Court, full of native energy, was an unwelcome place in which to wake.
Bournemouth are spritely these days. Their early season listlessness is long gone, so are fears of relegation, and Eddie Howe’s team have made life difficult for most of the top sides who have come here. Manchester City needed a very late winner to avoid a draw, Chelsea were rattled before emerging with the points, and Arsenal were beaten.
Tottenham began in a deep sulk. Within ten minutes Lys Mousset and Junior Stanislas had butchered the game’s first true opportunity. Played in by Callum Wilson slide-rule pass, they broke free only for the latter to chip onto the bar with only Hugo Lloris to beat. It was only a reprieve, though: minutes later, an Adam Smith cross would find Stanislas alone at the far post and this time he finished well, drilling across Lloris into the bottom corner.
For anyone looking, the symptoms of hangover were there: Bournemouth’s bright menace saw them drive forward and, in response, Spurs managed very little. Harry Kane played with his back to goal and against steady centre-half attrition and the gears behind him appeared to lack their normal grease.
Unfortunately, the one moment of freedom Kane did enjoy led to his departure. A collision with Asmir Begovic may have left the ball in the net, but up went the offside flag and on came the physio. Spurs’ talisman was done for the day, replaced by Erik Lamela with Heung Min Son moving to the top of the formation.
Very occasionally, a forced change and the tactical patch-up which follows alters a team’s performance for the better - and this was one of those occasions. Lamela’s ethereal craft helped Spurs to move possession forward with greater urgency and with Son leading the line with ad libbing whirl, the visitors had an outlet who was far harder for the home defence to trap. Howe presumably dedicated much of his week to stopping Kane and, when he departed, Bournemouth’s defensive energy was left without a focus point.
That drifting pivot was the root of Spurs’s equaliser. A quick, vertical exchange between Lamela and Son sprung Serge Aurier, before the full-back’s cross dropped perfectly between goalkeeper and defence. Dele Alli, a pantomime villain almost from the start, scuffed the ball home. He trotted away with that familiar impish petulance, cupping his ear to the far stand and smirking that devilish grin.
It can’t be over-emphasised: Alli adores being the villain. The fiercer the barbs and the louder the moral outrage, the more his mind sharpens and the greater the darkness in his periphery. Booing him may have become habit for some, but it looks increasingly futile - to his advantage, even. It's a difficult point to prove, but his goal today capped an improvement which seemed to begin the moment the crowd grew interested in him. When they started howling at his every touch, his touches grew steadily more assured.
But that equaliser was also one of the key differences between the very best teams in the Premier League and the rest. Spurs were dire in that first half. Often chaotic and permanently off-balance. Nevertheless, the ability to spring one high quality move together was enough - enough for parity, enough to change the flow of momentum, and - ultimately - enough to alter the entire feel of the contest.
When the players re-emerged after the break, it was into an entirely different game. Lloris was requiredto push away a fierce drive from Simon Francis, but the familiar tenets of Tottenham performances past began to reappear. Moussa Dembele was pirouetting with his usual muscular grace, Christian Eriksen started to touch, look, and pass with all his normal economy.
On the hour, that superiority told. It was fortunate, with Son’s contact on Alli’s cross being less than perfect, but it was enough. His falling volley looped up and over Begovic and dropped into the far-corner. Howe’s post mortem into that goal will make uncomfortable viewing for his centre-halves, but it was indicative of the problem they faced: they prepared for Kane. His runs, his strengths, his patterns of movement. Son, with a license to read, react and improvise, created an unsolvable problem. Particularly, of course, for a defensive group which depends more on instruction than outright talent. Bournemouth are long on heart and spirit and often play bright football, but mid-game flexibility is not among those strengths.
The fourth goal wouldn’t arrive until minutes before the end and, perhaps rightly, the locals will complain that it should have been 2-2 by then. Mike Dean had other ideas, though, ruling out Callum Wilson’s short-range prod for a push on Davinson Sanchez. Generous and the kind of foul which is often unnoticed, but probably also correct.
Son settled the game though, running in on Begovic from forty yards, dropping his shoulder, and scurrying around him. An excellent finish which, with cruel symmetry, was similar to the one squandered by Wilson and Stanislas in the first half. This time, Son ignored Lamela, took the responsibility, and finished the game. Again, there lies the difference: equal chances, different results.
Aurier added a fourth in stoppage-time, steering a header into an unguarded net, but it was really incidental by that point. The story had been written and copy filed: this was already cruel on Bournemouth and a savagely meek return for what was often a relatively good performance.
For Tottenham, though, it was another reminder of how times change. It's a trite point to make, but then so much of their present is framed by their past and their improvement should always be charted against what they once were. In that context, this win spoke to a lessening reliance on Kane, of course, but also to an admirable resilience. It wasn’t so long ago that the defeat to Juventus would have been a mortal wound; the kind of defeat to end a season.
Not so on this evidence, though. This particular hangover seems already to be over.