Well, that’s more like it! Tottenham Hotspur entered Tuesday’s match against Red Star Belgrade looking like beaten dogs, but emerged feeling like thoroughbreds after a convincing 5-0 smashing of Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League. Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane both scored braces, with Erik Lamela adding a goal to complete the rout.
It was a refreshing display of football, with Spurs almost looking like... well, Spurs. There are lots of things to talk about from this match, but here are five things (among many more) that we learned from the big win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
At least for this match, Spurs looked like themselves again
It’s easy to say so after putting five goals past an opponent, but this was clearly the best and most assured Spurs have looked all season. Pochettino’s starting XI featured some bold choices — Christian Eriksen & Harry Winks were both on the bench today, and neither Danny Rose & Toby Alderweireld were in the matchday 18. Instead of the diamond, Spurs played a fluid 4-3-3 with a “pivot” of Moussa Sissoko and Tanguy Ndombele in the midfield with Dele playing just ahead, and Erik Lamela and Son Heung-Min interchanging with Harry Kane up top.
It was phenomenal. Spurs looked fluid and convincing fom the opening kick, and had plenty of space in and around Red Star’s box with which to work. The passing was crisp and Spurs were able to find plenty of room in between Red Star’s lines. Fullbacks Ben Davies and Serge Aurier both served as excellent wide outlets and were playing good balls into the middle and in transition. Lamela had without question his best match of the season. Harry Kane was running! Son Heung-Min was finishing! It was super fun!
This is the way we’re used to seeing Spurs play. Yes, Red Star is a pretty bad team and Spurs were helped by the Serbians’ decision not to sit back and try and frustrate. But you could see a marked increase of movement, energy, and panache over the 90 minutes.
Tottenham is better when the players press
For the first time in what feels like forever, Spurs came into the match with what looked like a solid tactical game plan and they executed it to perfection. And those tactics were best emphasized with a return to the robust high press that has served them so well in the past. By pressing their opponents, Spurs were able to force turnovers and then hit quickly on the counter attack, and they were very successful doing that in the first half.
In fact, Tottenham’s third goal started with midfield pressure from Tanguy Ndombele on Red Star’s Marko Marin. While it’d be hard to say that the pressure caused the turnover (Marin just coughed up the ball with a bad touch) the fact that Ndombele was in his face gave Ndombele the opportunity to pounce on the ball, drive forward, and find an open Son Heung-Min for an easy finish.
All this season we’ve been asking why Spurs either have decided not to press against league opponents or have seemingly given up on the tactic early on in matches. Some of that may come down to personnel — Ndombele is better at pressing than Harry Winks, and Erik Lamela is famously a pressing monster. But it also could be that Mauricio Pochettino has realized that a return to the press is his best chance of turning things around. He hinted as much after the match, even as he said it’s still a work in progress.
“[The press is] not really in the way that I like no, not yet. It will arrive for sure, if we keep working. Of course in some periods we showed great energy and I think it helped us score two goals in 15 minutes. I think it gave us the confidence and of course our fans were fantastic. The atmosphere was great.”
We’ll see if that press continues to be as effective against a much better team at Anfield this Sunday.
Tanguy Ndombele is an upgrade over Harry Winks
Tottenham’s midfield was vastly improved over the past few matches, and while I don’t want to make any player a scapegoat, it’s notable that the improvement came with a midfield that featured Tanguy Ndombele and Moussa Sissoko, and not Harry Winks.
We’ve been over and over about Winks’ unique skillset as a ball-recycling midfielder. There’s a role for a player like Winksy, and I don’t necessarily view this section as a pejorative. But holy moly you guys, did you see Tanguy out there? Spurs were infinitely more progressive with Sissoko running around breaking up play, freeing up Ndombele to push the ball forward.
Take a look at his StatsZone map on the right. This is like anti-Winks stuff. He also ripped a shot that forced a great save from the Red Star keeper.
If Spurs are going to pull themselves out of the doldrums, that needs to start by being more progressive in the midfield. This is what Tanguy Ndombele provides. It was also encouraging that Ndombele went the full 90 minutes for (I believe) the first time this season. Now, get Giovani Lo Celso fit and starting alongside Tanguy and I’ll really start to believe.
Spurs need to offload Christian Eriksen as soon as they can
Eriksen’s omission from the team today wasn’t a surprise — he’s been on the bench more often than he’s started this season. What was surprising was that, in a home Champions League match on a very big stage, he didn’t see the pitch at all.
Instead, Erik Lamela was in the creative midfield role and was outstanding, with two assists and a goal in addition to his usual hard tackles and Terrier-like pressing. There was no lolly-gagging here — the best example was Lamela slide-tackling a Red Star player in the corner and preventing a ball from going out of play minutes before the match ended. Can you imagine Eriksen doing that this season?
That’s telling, and is the strongest circumstantial evidence yet that Pochettino is done with the Dane. He’ll never say so publicly, and if asked he’d probably just say that the match didn’t require him today. Nor do I think that he’ll be permanently exiled from the team — there are too many games before January to banish him to the reserves, and Eriksen’s a quality player who can do a job even if he doesn’t want to be here.
Still, this felt like a statement from Pochettino, as was leaving out Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld. We already know Eriksen wants out. Pochettino may have just tried to prove that he doesn’t need Eriksen as badly as Christian would like to think he does.
A big win doesn’t cure Spurs, but it does stop the bleeding.
A loss or a draw today and Spurs would be heading into Sunday’s match against league leaders Liverpool with an even bigger cloud of doom hanging over the club. Instead, Spurs jumped up to second in their Champions League group and head to Anfield with a bit of spring in their step. Liverpool is a lot better than Red Star, naturally. It’s distinctly possible that they’ll lose this match — they wouldn’t be favored to win even if Spurs hadn’t been dropping points the past few weeks. But now, they’ll head to Anfield believing that they’ll have a chance.
Despite all the “club in crisis” talk, Spurs are still “only” five points out of third place, well within striking distance of a top four finish. Yes, there are still massive problems with Tottenham’s squad that won’t be fixed until January at the earliest. But it’s still early days. There’s plenty of time to right the ship, and now we know Spurs still have it in them to run teams off the pitch.