Tottenham Hotspur walked onto the Wembley Stadium pitch knowing their Champions League campaign was on life support. Only a win over Inter Milan, the same team that scored two late goals at the San Siro to send them to a crushing loss in September, would keep their hopes alive.
Well, they got their win: a 1-0 decision thanks to a Christian Eriksen goal in the 80th minute. The result means that in order to advance they must either win against a likely rotated Barcelona at the Nou Camp, or at least best Inter’s result vs. PSV on December 11.
It wasn’t as comprehensive a win as this past weekend’s stomping of Chelsea, but there are takeaways. Here are a few things we learned from Spurs’ victory.
Spurs did juuuuuuust enough to win.
Tottenham needed to win, that much was clear. They also needed to rotate, as this match came between the home match against Chelsea and the first North London Derby this weekend. While it seems likely that some players like Serge Aurier, Toby Alderweireld, and Harry Kane are going to play 270 minutes during this stretch, there are other players who needed to rest. That’s why Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min started the day on the bench.
The team that took the pitch at Wembley played well, if not spectacularly. Spurs had the bulk of the possession, held Inter to just two shots on target, and generally looked like, if you cocked your head and squinted, the better side on the day. In truth, either team could’ve won this match, and a draw would’ve been a fair result, as the xG map shows.
xG map for Tottenham - Inter. Spurs just squeak through. pic.twitter.com/fF32DHOnPQ— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) November 28, 2018
It sure looked like this was going to end up a scoreless draw until impact sub Christian Eriksen slotted home a layoff from Dele Alli in Inter’s box in the 80th minute. That was really the difference: Spurs were patient and waited for the chance, and capitalized on the biggest one they had all night. In the end, it was just enough.
This Tottenham side isn’t the same without Christian Eriksen.
Christian Eriksen’s first touch of the ball was a wicked flat free kick that passed just inches away from Jan Vertonghen’s head. It was a sure goal if it had connected. That’s the kind of thing that the Danish midfielder brings to this Tottenham side. Not just free kick delivery, but pure, undiluted creativity. Without him for most of the match, Spurs looked competent, but just lacked that certain spark that propelled them to that big win over Chelsea last weekend. That changed the minute Eriksen came on in the 2nd half.
That’s not to disparage Dele Alli, who worked hard and had a good match, but when Eriksen is on the pitch, magic tends to happen. Defenders are drawn out of position, through-balls are attempted, and yes, even goals are scored. Eriksen’s winner was well-struck but was also set up beautifully by Sissoko’s cutback and Dele’s layoff into space.
That maybe presents a small problem for Spurs — Mauricio Pochettino has said that Eriksen’s abominal injury needs to be managed, and he won’t start every game. Spurs could do with one more creative player in his mold (not named Dele Alli) for those times, lest the offense continue to look slightly flat in his absence. But so long as he’s available for at least a cameo, it’s likely Tottenham’s positive run will continue.
Tottenham’s central defenders were spectacular.
Wednesday’s match was probably the perfect one to welcome Jan Vertonghen back to the Tottenham starting lineup. Unquestionably one of Spurs’ two best defenders, Jan had been out for about two months with an injury, and Spurs had been making do with a combination of (also injured) Davinson Sanchez and 20-year old Juan Foyth in his absence.
Both Sanchez and Foyth have been fine, but seeing Janby Alderweirtonghen back in action against Inter for the first time in what feels like forever was an excellent reminder as to why the Belgians form one of, if not the, best center back pairings in the Premier League. In his first action in months, Vertonghen had seven interceptions, a block, and five clearances, including two with his head, while only committing one foul. Alderweireld’s stats aren’t quite as gaudy (one tackle, interception, and block, and three clearances) but those stats don’t include the number of times both he and Jan used their excellent positioning to snuff out possible Inter attacks in the midfield before they had a chance to become dangerous.
Spurs had an absolutely outstanding defensive performance against Inter, and it’s in large part because their defense is finally (mostly) healthy.
I yield. Moussa Sissoko is good now.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been both incredibly hard on Moussa Sissoko and potentially one of the last to admit that he’s turned his career around this season. It’s been easy to hand-wave off his solid performances of late by saying that the Frenchman is still “a bad player who’s playing well right now.” Surely, the toxic waste pits that were his performances the past two seasons set the bar so low that even I could jump over it, right?
Well, I was wrong, and it’s time to admit the truth: Moussa Sissoko has been excellent, and keeps getting better. Placed in the center of midfield as opposed to wide attacking midfield where he started his Spurs career, Sissoko has been placed in a situation that both emphasizes the things that he does well (running with the ball, take-ons, speed, effort) while minimizing some of the areas in which he can struggle (passing, decisions, shooting).
And he’s even been good in his so-called weak areas! Against Inter, Sissoko completed 90% of his passes, including 13/14 in the attacking third. He created two chances, was 2/4 on take-ons (including one where he dinked the ball past Marcelo Brozovic and sprinted into space upfield), and had the hockey assist for Eriksen’s goal, pushing forward into the box before playing a lovely cutback to Dele Alli.
I never thought I’d find myself typing these words, but Sissoko has made himself almost un-droppable. I don’t know if he’ll start against Arsenal this weekend after playing 180 minutes in five days, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him. Fancy that.