Oof. A depleted Tottenham Hotspur side, one missing seven first team players to injury, lost 4-2 to Barcelona at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday night. Barca got the win behind a brace from Lionel Messi, a stunner from Ivan Rakitic, and a very early goal from Philippe Coutinho. Harry Kane and Erik Lamela both scored second half goals as Spurs tried to claw their way back equal, but it was too little too late, and Spurs now find themselves in a hole in Champions League group B.
Here are some things we learned from the match.
1. Lionel Messi was the difference maker.
Barcelona are a very, very good team, even when riding a three match losing streak and when without their starting center back in Samuel Umtiti. Barca thoroughly dominated Spurs in the opening 45 minutes and were pretty ruthless with the chances that they had.
And yet there are still positives to take from this match. Despite being without Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, Mousa Dembele, and Jan Vertonghen, and with a horror of a match from Hugo Lloris, Spurs still scored twice and had opportunities to equalize. But let’s make no mistake here - Barcelona were better than Tottenham today, and the primary reason was Lionel Messi, who was, to borrow a word from Ray Hudson, “magisterial.” Spurs may have had a game plan to contain him, but having a game plan and executing it are two very different things.
Messi was a joy to watch — he scored two, plonked another two off the left post, was involved in all four of Barca’s goals, and created havoc the entire match. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that if Messi weren’t on the pitch (or if Spurs were able to field a healthy first choice XI) Spurs might have salvaged a result in that match. Instead, Messi put that team on his back, and Barcelona were outstanding.
2. Harry Kane and Erik Lamela were superb for Spurs.
If there was an MVP of tonight’s match for Tottenham, it was probably Erik Lamela. He was all over the pitch, harrying Barcelona players and making things happen. He had a goal, an assist, and four tackles. He ran his tail off, as evident by his eventual substitution when he cramped up so severely he fell to the pitch. He was also one of the few bright spots for Spurs in the first half through his relentless pressing. We’ve been wondering for a while if and when Lamela is going to begin earning some starts with this Tottenham team. I think he’s earned them going forward.
If you read Joel Wertheimer’s excellent article about Kane and proprioception, you might consider this another datapoint in support of that theory. This was Kane’s best match this year, the first time we’ve REALLY seen Harry Kane look like Harry Kane since he returned (too soon) from that ankle injury. His cut-back and shot for Spurs’ opening goal was a vintage Kane goal, the kind of move that we’ve come to expect from him the past few years, but that we haven’t really seen in the opening part of the season.
Spurs were decent with a healthy squad and a misfiring Kane. If they can get healthy again and keep Kane as hungry as he’s been the past couple of matches, Spurs could again be extremely good.
3. Spurs’ midfield is still a problem.
There are plenty of areas where you could point to as why Spurs lost on Wednesday. Hugo Lloris had an absolute nightmare in goal, and both of Spurs’ fullbacks were especially profligate defensively. Spurs had very little creativity in the side due to injuries.
All of these things are true, but I want to focus on the midfield. Yes, Mauricio Pochettino was forced to start with a makeshift pivot. Assuming a healthy squad nobody would’ve asked for or wanted a midfield two of Victor Wanyama and Harry Winks. Still, the midfield was entirely outclassed by Barcelona today and allowed Barca to create a ton of chances. Wanyama looked rusty, and while he made a few good tackles, he clearly wasn’t at his best, and showed it. Winks improved significantly in the second half — his lung-busting run to tackle the ball away from Messi was pretty awesome — but he wasn’t a press-resistant behemoth like Mousa Dembele and wasn’t the conduit between defense and attack the way we hoped. Both of them missed the creative presence of Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli, and even then it’s not like Spurs have been dominating midfields like they have been in past seasons.
It’s a major issue, one that might have been mitigated somewhat with a (gasp) summer signing or two. Barring that, Spurs better start either hoping that the CMs start suddenly playing better, or that Pochettino has a plan for the January window.
4. Spurs’ chances for progressing out of the group stages look bleak.
Mathematically, it’s still possible for Spurs to escape their Champions League group, but they have to run the table against Inter Milan and PSV AND hope that Inter drops additional points to PSV. That’s a pretty tall order. PSV haven’t won either of their games, but they’re undefeated and top of the table in the Eredivisie and are no slouches.
But there’s still hope, and Spurs have shown that they have the talent and ability to compete with the other teams in their group. They will need to start proving that they can beat them or they’ll end up parachuting down to the Europa League... or worse. If that happens, Spurs will need to make sure they finish top four in the Premier League so they can get a chance at redemption.