Tottenham Hotspur went to Athens on Wednesday to open their account in the new Champions League season. While they were able to avoid losing, something that both Liverpool and Chelsea managed to do on Tuesday, Spurs didn’t play especially well against Olympiacos. Spurs went up 2-0 in the first half but let the home side back into the match by conceding two goals and left Greece with a 2-2 draw that probably feels a lot more disappointing than it really is.
There’s certainly no shortage of talking points from this match, but let’s focus on three for now. Here are three things we learned from Tottenham’s 2-2 draw at Olympiacos in the Champions League.
1. The Champions League is tougher when you don’t play well.
I know, it’s obvious, but it still bears saying. No one is going to look at Tottenham’s performance in Athens and say it was a good match. It wasn’t. At all. Sure, Spurs had their moments, but for much of the game Spurs looked more like they did against Newcastle than they did against Palace — slow in possession, turgid, uncharacteristically wayward with their passing, and slow to recover in transition. The overall performance improved in the second half, especially Spurs’ ability to press and counterpress after losing possession. But that is still not a match you’re going to point to and say “this is the way Spurs should play.”
Certainly a point away in Athens is nothing to scoff at. Olympiacos qualified for the group stages of the competition and beat three teams to get here. They’re a competent squad and tough to turn over, especially at home. Olympiacos entered this match having yet to concede a goal at home in all competitions; Spurs put two past them today. A point away from home keeps Spurs on track to progress out of their Champions League group — the mantra of “win your home games and don’t lose on the road” still applies. Still, it’s frustrating to watch Spurs’ good players not play well — Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen being Exhibits A & B in that category — and know that if they had played baseline-fine they likely would’ve come home with three points instead of one.
2. Dele and Tanguy Ndombele are not fit.
I was especially excited to see Tanguy Ndombele and Dele back starting and playing significant minutes after their respective injuries at the start of the season, but the reality was that neither look like they’re anything close to peak fitness. Dele was certainly trying to do things in his role behind Harry Kane, but he looked tired by the end of the first half and was very obviously flagging midway through the second; his substitution for Son Heung-Min was a welcome relief.
Ndombele also struggled, and when he came off at the hour mark he looked like he was about ready to keel over. Tanguy also didn’t play especially well, but it’s hard to say whether that was fitness related, an unfavorable pairing with Harry Winks, or both.
I don’t think there’s much cause for concern for either player at this point — they’re clearly shaking off rust and there will be numerous opportunities for match minutes in the upcoming days. But Spurs will need them healthy and at peak performance this season if they are going to have success. Based on this match, they both have a ways to go.
3. Davinson Sanchez is still not a right back.
Mauricio Pochettino promised Spurs fans rotation for this match, and we got it. Mauricio Pochettino left Danny Rose & Serge Aurier in London and Walker-Peters on the bench, meaning that once again he’d need to get creative at the right back position. The pre-match starting lineup included Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, and Davinson Sanchez, which that led many to speculate that Pochettino would turn to Alderweireld wide right, a role he has played well for Belgium in the past.
Instead, he tapped Davinson Sanchez to reprise the role he did — poorly — against Arsenal. It went about as well as expected. Sanchez looked way out of his depth again when asked to play out of position, though it should be noted that he improved when asked to play more conservatively in the second half.
It’s not his fault, really — Sanchez looked pretty good when asked to do “central defendery” things and bad when asked to do “right backy” things, which makes a lot of sense, since he’s not a right back. Still, it’s curious that Poch decided to go back to this particular well when Eric Dier is still languishing on the bench and KWP presumably fit enough for at least a cameo. I can understand Pochettino being conservative and protective of both Walker-Peters’ and Auriers’ health statuses, but the right back position is going to continue to be a problem until a settled rotation is established.
4. It may be time to start worrying about Harry Kane.
Over the past several years we’ve gotten used to World Football Superstar Harry Kane — the guy who can create his own shot with a half-step of space, who makes opposition defenders look silly, and who has the awareness to drop deep and find open teammates when the tactics dictate while still dominating the offense. What we’re seeing now is not that guy. In fact, Kane doesn’t seem to be the same kind of player since he came back from his ankle injury at the end of last season.
That’s not to say that he’s not still a very good player, because he most certainly is. Even last season an injury-ravaged Kane averaged 0.6 xG+xA/90 (more than a goal or assist every other match), a pretty good statistic for Not Harry Kane. The problem is we’re expecting Harry Kane, not Not Harry Kane, and at least this season something definitely seems off. Against Olympiacos, Kane had just four shots, three in the second half, two of them blocked, and one of them his penalty. Four days earlier against Crystal Palace he had just one shot in a 4-0 win.
The concern is that thanks to his frequent ankle injuries Kane may have lost a half-step of pace or a touch of his explosive mobility that made him so dangerous earlier in his career. If so, that takes him down from a legitimate world class striker to “merely” a very good striker. That’s still good! But considering how important Kane is to Tottenham’s offense, it’s also worrisome.
It’s too early to make sweeping generalizations yet — Kane looked good for England over the international break and has had matches for Spurs already this season where he looks more like his “old self.” And to be fair Kane looked a lot more “Harry Kane” in the last 20 minutes of the Olympiacos match. It could be an anomaly that will resolve itself with time, or it could be that as he ages Kane can morph into a slightly tweaked role that will emphasize the things he still does very, very well (hello, support striker? No. 10?). But if you want something to keep you up at night, it’s this: Kane just doesn’t look quite right at the moment.