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Rose, Thorn, Bud — Tottenham 1-0 Watford

Let’s reflect on Sunday’s 1-0 performance for Spurs against newly-promoted Watford.

Tottenham Hotspur v Watford - Premier League Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

Three Premier League games have finished and all three have ended in 1-0 wins for Tottenham Hotspur. Just a few days after utilizing most of their first team to put Paços de Ferreira away in the UEFA Conference League, Tottenham defeated a newly-promoted Watford side at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. When Watford were last up in the top flight, Spurs took just two points off of the northwest London outfit. Sunday’s performance wasn’t a perfect one by any means, but Spurs did what was necessary to take all three points in this one.

For the third consecutive Premier League game, Nuno Espírito Santo opted to continue with a 4-3-3 shape with the only adjustment being Harry Kane over Lucas Moura, pushing Son Heung-min to the flank in the process. One point to note is that Son played on the right, with the idea of giving more a defensive role to Steven Bergwijn on the left against Ismaïla Sarr. Dele Alli kept his place as the left-sided midfielder as part of the three in midfield, followed by Oliver Skipp in the middle and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg out on the right.

Spurs’ back-four once again consisted of Sergio Reguilón and Japhet Tanganga at the fullback positions and Davinson Sánchez and Eric Dier manning the two centerback spots. While a lot has been made about Spurs’ defensive woes, the group of four, aided by Skipp and Højbjerg, once again kept a clean sheet. Despite an imperfect performance, there was never really a game-altering opportunity that threatened keeper Hugo Lloris.

Tanganga did give the ball away a few times going forward, but Sánchez was truly excellent in this one and deserves a lot more recognition. It appears that Sánchez has been playing with a lot of confidence, so perhaps he is coming good and consistent on the expectations that were placed on him when Spurs made him their club-record signing when they brought him over from Ajax in the summer of 2017.

In midfield, Højbjerg was once again a menace. His motor did not stop and he really set the tone in a match where they needed his grit and hard work to earn victory. Next to him, Skipp impressed, particularly in the second half. So far in the young season, the most encouraging aspect from Skipp, in my opinion, is that he has been able to adjust to different opponents. The player he was against Watford played extremely differently than the player he was against Manchester City. At 20, that is extremely encouraging. Skipp can certainly still improve in a variety different aspects of his game, but these minutes are quite encouraging for a player who has been placed with some lofty expectations.

In attack, Spurs did look a bit stagnant. The starting trio of Kane, Son and Bergwijn were not able to particularly break down the compact Watford shape. While it could be a fitness or lack of familiarity, Spurs will certainly improve in this area as Kane ups his fitness levels. On the outside, Spurs lacked character. Sure Son scored the goal off of the free kick, but there was not a consistent level of cutting edge in opening play, which has now been the case for the second consecutive Premier League game.

To continue with this series, let’s analyze the roses, the thorns and the buds from Sunday’s 1-0 win. For those new to the series, see the definitions below:

  • Rose: A highlight, success, small win, or something positive that happened.
  • Thorn: A challenge you experienced or something you can use more support with.
  • Bud: New ideas that have blossomed or something you are looking forward to knowing more about or experiencing.

Rose

With another game and yet another clean sheet, the defensive duo of Sánchez and Dier should be commended. Predominately the first choice defensive duo last season, many believed that the futures of both players at the club were up in the air. But to this point, both players have looked far more comfortable and assertive playing next to one another. Sánchez in particular was excellent against Watford. Nuno’s decision to play them a bit farther up the pitch and away from a low block shape has certainly been a catalyst to the good form both players are in right now. Additionally, the addition of Cristian Romero has likely pushed the duo to improve and up their performances.

Against one of the better talents in the league at wing in Sarr, Reguilón was excellent. Even when Sarr got in, Reguilón’s angles and intelligence, albeit via a tactical foul or forcing Sarr into other Tottenham players, were spot on. In a match where Spurs dug in, Reguilón was up for the challenge.

We spoke a bit about Højbjerg above, but for me he was the man of the match in this game. While many would prefer to see a bit more of ball-progression capability out of the position that Højbjerg is currently occupying in the midfield, he has done an amazing job this season so far playing a bit more outside, with Skipp in the hole. Højbjerg was constantly running in this one and once again is proving to be one of Tottenham’s best and most reliable players. While Spurs have swung and missed on more than a few of their recent transfers, Højbjerg is continually showcasing that he is one of the more unheralded players in the league and deserves far more recognition.

Thorn

We spoke about it after the Wolves game and we will speak about it here again: it is quite clear how uncreative Spurs have been so far through the middle of the park. While Skipp and Højbjerg bring that defensive capability and assuredness, they lack dribbling and speed in the middle of the pitch. To be honest, Spurs have been missing the creative outlet/link in the midfield since Christian Eriksen left. And while they could improve in this department by utilizing Giovani Lo Celso and/or Tanguy Ndombele a bit more, Spurs would be wise to add a player like Houssem Aouar, who can pick out players and open up play through the lines, into the fold.

A smaller concern yet it should be mentioned here is Kane’s energy levels. Up to this point, there were aspects of Kane’s game that he was doing last season that he has yet to do this season. Playing on Thursday was definitely felt for Kane in this one as he did appear to be a bit leggy. As he ups his fitness, Spurs will be able to be more dynamic in the final third.

Bud

While the performances have not been spectacular, the points return so far in the young season has been perfect. As of this writing, the transfer window is still open. And due to this, not everything is certain regarding what Spurs plan to do and how Nuno deploys the squad after the window shuts. The team has looked keen and consistent to a 4-3-3 shape, but that could change depending on the next few days.

What we do not need any more evidence of is Nuno’s handling of press conferences and media updates. He has come off charismatic, professional and appropriate, all traits that predecessor José Mourinho struggled with. Using the Kane transfer saga as an example, Nuno seemingly played his cards perfectly. He consistently echoed the sentiment of the feeling of his team and how Kane is a great player and will eventually help the team. In the end, Kane ended up staying and had the support of Nuno all along and now the Portuguese manager looks like a genius.

In a time where Spurs could have gone for a deep tailspin, Nuno has delivered three wins off the bounce and is really playing with house money. The jury is obviously still out on the appointment of Nuno, but 35 more 1-0 wins would certainly bolster his case. With the window closing soon, Spurs have a few games to use for evidence to identify which areas and philosophies they feel comfortable in and which areas are still of concern and need addressing. Despite how imperfect the performances have been, the start to the season has been perfect for Spurs. Credit to Nuno and his staff.