Given where they’re at, Spurs have to get credit for fighting back from 2-0 down for a point against a good Manchester United team. But that defending…
1. We probably do need to start here by giving credit where credit’s due. This was shaping up to be a very different 16 Conclusions at half-time and, while Spurs’ second-half performance doesn’t eradicate the catastrophic flaws and faultlines exposed once again in a grim first half, it would be remiss not to praise Ryan Mason and his side for the response.
On the back of Sunday’s grisly unpleasantness and finding themselves 2-0 down to a very good side chiefly through their own witless carelessness and led by a rookie coach it would have been no surprise to see this turn into another ugly Spurs clusterf*ck. That they were so conspicuously the better side in the second half is noteworthy and creditable.
2. Of course, that means the flipside is also true. That was a sloppy second half from a United side who spent the first 45 gratefully and nonchalantly accepting the gifts Spurs offered but appeared wholly unprepared for anything different in the second half. It’s scant defence to note that this was an opinion shared by the entire world at half-time. Spurs’ collapse over recent weeks means United’s top-four spot remains relatively secure, but the casual tossing away of two precious points here will rightly rile Erik Ten Hag.
3. Mitigation for United’s second-half stumble is easy enough to find, though. Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Brighton was a punishing and exhausting 120 minutes followed by the emotional stress of a penalty shoot-out and the subsequent outpouring of joy and relief upon winning it. Clever Spurs had no such problems having used up precisely zero energy at St James’ Park earlier that same day.
4. That FA Cup semi-final also goes some way to explaining the second-half substitutions Ten Hag felt duty bound to make, but there can be no doubt he lost that particular battle to Mason. That’s a significant feather in the cap of the young Spurs coach.
While Mason’s decision to replace Richarlison – by far the liveliest of Spurs’ attackers in the first half and the sort of chaos merchant that appeared their likeliest route back into the game – rather than Son Heung-min when introducing Dejan Kulusevski from the bench raised eyebrows but was thoroughly vindicated. Kulusevski changed the feel of the game and Son, while still levels below his best, scuffed home the equaliser. Mason deserves credit too for starting Richarlison from the left, his best position but one he has occupied infrequently and then the forgotten Arnaud Danjuma as a No. 9 to allow Harry Kane to play as a 10 and create the equaliser. There was more flexibility and fluidity about Spurs’ attacking patterns than has been the case for much of the season.
United, meanwhile, ceded their quiet control of the game when Fred came on for Eriksen. Until then, United’s three had effortlessly overwhelmed Spurs’ two in the centre of midfield. It has been Spurs’ problem all season and one exacerbated by the long-term absence of the excellent Rodrigo Bentancur. Fred, though, had one of those evenings where everything he attempts goes wrong and Spurs were able to wrestle back control. It’s simplistic to say the balance of the game shifted entirely when Eriksen’s 91 per cent pass completion rate made way for Fred’s 70 per cent, but not that simplistic.
5. Mason really does deserve a lot of credit. He had little choice to return to the 3-4-3 after Sunday’s disastrous flirtation with a back four went so very badly; Spurs simply don’t have the players to play anything other than a back three right now. He must make the best of it. After taking on the interim role on Monday he can hardly be blamed for the individual errors from Pedro Porro, Ivan Perisic, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Eric Dier that led to that 2-0 half-time scoreline, but he can claim plenty of credit for the togetherness and heart his side showed after the break. That Son’s reaction to scoring the equaliser was to head straight for his temporary boss said a lot. Mason won’t get the job on a permanent basis – much as we’d love to see a big Premier League club attempt to run purely on vibes – but has made all the right noises about feeling ready to do so and expressing his love for the club.
6. It’s an angle Mason is right to pursue. His love for Spurs is deep and true and will carry him a long way through what could still be a nasty end to the season given the total collapse of Spurs’ defensive wherewithal. Above all, he will retain the support of the fans and he had it here. While chants of “Daniel Levy, get out of our club” and “We want Levy out” were clearly audible at various points, as were half-time boos despite the masking efforts of the Stone Roses (Fools’ Gold – sometimes the jokes can be too obvious even for us) booming out of the PA system, there was even in that difficult first half a better atmosphere in the ground than might have been expected.
When Spurs started to get a foothold after the break, the ground was rocking in a way rarely seen or heard this season even in the better times when a top-four finish was a realistic or even likely outcome. Having a manager who spends his press conference saying he loves the club rather than negging everyone from chairman to tea lady might actually lead to a better mood, who knew?
7. And if Mason – an impressive character and clearly a coach with a bright future but nevertheless a 31-year-old taking charge of only his eighth senior game – can have that kind of impact it does make the wilfully stubborn refusal from Spurs’ under-fire top brass to even consider a return for Mauricio Pochetino all the more baffling. It still seems like it was such an obvious and easy win for a chairman and board in urgent, desperate need of it. At the very least, Pochettino was the one sensible and plausible permanent appointment Levy could have made that would have bought some time and breathing space for both chairman and manager alike. He’s now under serious pressure to pull a Nagelsmann-level rabbit out of the hat or face open revolt. The fans like Mason and will support him but he isn’t a serious permanent option just yet.
8. The main catalyst for the second-half fightback, though, was unsurprisingly Harry Kane. After a quiet first half he became the game’s pivotal figure after the break, involved in everything Spurs did well – which was plenty – and offering a largely unnecessary reminder of his qualities to the team that remains his primary suitor this summer. He really is a complete centre-forward and the pass to create Son’s equaliser – a record-extending 46th time they’ve combined for a Premier League goal – was needle-threading perfection.
It really doesn’t bear thinking about where Spurs would be without Kane this season, but next season might give us a bit of a clue. There isn’t a team in the world he wouldn’t improve, but United do have such a conspicuously obvious Kane-shaped hole in their team. The sight of United bringing on Wout Weghorst at a time when the game was being played to Kane’s tune will surely have made Spurs fans more than a little uneasy.
9. The fightback that secured a point will inevitably be the focus, but even in the first half when Spurs were bad they were still less bad than they’ve been for most of the post-World Cup chunk of this season.
They are pretty much stuck with 3-4-3 until the end of the season now but here at least there was some evidence – even in that forgettable first half – of an attempt to utilise its advantages. Porro’s defending remains abysmal and his signing at eye-watering cost the specific request of a manager who at the time of the wing-back’s arrival had, at best, four months left at the club an absolute folly, but he is a potent attacking threat whose link-up with even this current subdued version of Son showed some promise. On the other flank, Perisic was more involved as an attacking outlet than in recent games before making way for the greater defensive qualities of Ben Davies late on.
Cristian Stellini never managed to coax this kind of attacking intent from this team or this structure; Antonio Conte did so only rarely.
10. There was an obvious attempt by Spurs to make a conspicuous effort to show lessons had been learned from Sunday, which only makes the shambolic nature of the opening goal inside seven minutes more frustrating. But the effort was noted and did draw a response from the crowd even if its direction and aptitude didn’t always match its intent.
Spurs committed two fouls inside the opening minute of the game and few would require many guesses to identify those responsible before landing on Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Cristian Romero.
There was a transparent desire to set the tone and at no point was there any repeat of the total lack of effort that made Sunday so unacceptable. What there was, though, was a continuation of the lack of defensive shape or structure or just plain old common sense. Marcus Rashford was given too much time and space after collecting the ball in midfield and once Porro was drawn towards the ball Jadon Sancho was left in acres of space on the left edge of the Spurs box.
As he cut inside three defenders arrived in at least the same postcode, but none made much effort to actually prevent him curling a fine shot inside Fraser Forster’s far post.
That the exact same thing happened again 13 minutes later and required a desperate block and header off the line amplifies how bad Spurs are at defending. Only Leeds have conceded more Premier League goals in 2023 and it’s not hard to see why. Liverpool really could smash all kinds of records on Sunday if they have one of their good days at Anfield.
11. The second United goal was another combination of slick play from the visitors aided and abetted by crushingly thick Tottenham self-immolation. Perisic arguably should have made it 1-1 but shot straight at David De Gea; Perisic definitely should have let the subsequent hacked clearance run out of play for a Spurs corner. Instead he hared after it, slid to keep it in and 10 seconds, one Hojbjerg error, one good Bruno Fernandes pass, one effortless saunter past Dier and lashed finish from Rashford it was 2-0 and, seemingly, game over.
12. Dier had a horrible game, brutally exposed for the second United goal and heading the most gilt-edged chance of a game containing plenty of them wide of the target at 2-1 in one of those rare instances where it genuinely did seem easier to score. The form that got him back into the England squad really does seem a very, very long time ago now.
13. It wasn’t a vintage evening for centre-backs all round in fairness, with Sunday’s penalty hero Victor Lindelof hurried and harried by Spurs’ attackers and perhaps lucky to escape a second yellow card for the sort of foul that would undoubtedly have earned a first one. Clement Lenglet was humiliated by an outrageous piece of skill from Bruno, who somehow managed to both sit Lenglet on the floor and nutmeg him in the same motion before crashing a shot against the bar when he too really should have scored. That was moments after Spurs had got back into it through Porro’s clever finish with the outside of the right boot and would have felt very Spursy indeed even if it did owe more to Bruno’s brilliance than anything else.
14. The eye-catching exception, though, was Luke Shaw, who continues to make playing at centre-back look far more straightforward and serene than a bunch of guys who’ve been doing it their whole lives. He looked by far the most composed and authoritative centre-back on display in a harum scarum kind of game and increasingly looks like he’d actually be ideally suited to the left centre-back role in a three-man defence. Spurs, who actually play a three-man defence, could really do with such a player. Don’t think they’ll get very far with that, though, even if it’s part of a Harry Kane swap.
15. Spurs can be pleased with a potentially rot-stopping point but should still take pause before getting too excited. Yes, they played well in the second half but there’s also no doubt United let them off the hook. And this was still a result – on a night where Newcastle belted Everton 4-1 – that finally ends their dwindling hopes of a second straight season in the Champions League while the prospect of an eighth-placed finish still looms large if that defence cannot get its act together at least a little bit over the last month of the season.
This Spurs team is still done. Its flaws are too great, its problems too obvious and frequent to ignore. A difficult and delicate summer of upheaval awaits and the overwhelming likelihood is that the job will be left half-done. It’s probably too much for one summer anyway given the scale of the overhaul required (a quick count would suggest that the bare minimum requirements are a new manager, new goalkeeper, two new centre-backs, at least one new midfielder and another attacker – two if Kane leaves). It’s a result and performance that offers tangible, measurable improvement but it’s from such a very low base.
16. For United, a frustrating and irritating evening. They were never quite at their best but should have been too good for this version of Spurs – especially after getting the early goal to give players and fans that sinking feeling. Their control of the first half was real, but never quite as absolute as it ought to have been and the second half got away from them in alarming fashion.
At the same time, theirs has been among the more exhausting seasons in a uniquely exhausting season. With a top-four finish all but secure and seven more games to pack in before the Manchester Derby FA Cup final that looms so large, it would be more of a surprise if they didn’t start to coast a teensy bit in games that appear to be won against such broken opponents.
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