Sunday’s loss against Arsenal in the North London Derby felt like the latest low point among many for Tottenham Hotspur going back to the Champions League final loss in 2019. Somehow, someway, Spurs looked worse in the first half than they did two weeks away when they got run over by Crystal Palace. In the 35th minute, Spurs were already down 3-0 against an Arsenal side that looked hungrier, more fit, more compact and better-drilled.
In the first half, it became abundantly clear that Arsenal were running riot in midfield. Spurs went with Tanguy Ndombele and Dele Alli alongside Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in Nuno Espirito Santo’s usual 4-3-3 shape. Spurs were clumsy on the ball and lacked cutting edge in the final third, while Arsenal used quick transitions and well-worked, tiki-taka-like passing to run rampant on a midfield that seemed to only have Højbjerg to stop them. Pair that with inconsistent performances from Spurs’ starting fullbacks and it led to utter catastrophe at the back.
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Spurs’ performance in this one was their energy levels. They looked second-best in individual duels and the team, the midfield in particular, left acres of space in the center of the pitch, allowing Arsenal more than enough room to push forward and score goals.
However, if there was one positive to take from Sunday’s match, it’s this: Spurs were a better team once Bryan Gil came on. Considered one of the most promising young players in Spain, it’s taken a little bit of time for Gil to adjust to English football and to make his mark. But so far at just 20 years of age, Gil has looked sharp, and Spurs should consider giving him a shot in the starting lineup going forward.
While Tottenham did play better in the second half, the reality is that this was more likely due to Arsenal taking their foot off the gas. Despite this, Spurs still had chances to draw level. Harry Kane appeared to be not only fouled in Arsenal’s box (a decision that was not reviewed by VAR) but he also dinked a shot that went just wide of net. Lucas Moura found space in the latter parts of the game and curled a ball at goal that Aaron Ramsdale was able to deflect off the crossbar, a big stop.
A majority of Bryan’s minutes at Spurs have come so far via the UEFA Conference League and the League Cup, with him being utilized as a substitute for league matches. When Bryan signed, many had expected yet another winger in the club to compete against the likes of Lucas and Steven Bergwijn for minutes opposite of Son Heung-min. However, he has played predominantly in two positions as either a midfield number eight (via LCM spot) or out on the wing.
One of Bryan’s best attributes is that he is constantly running. He is brave and wants to take on players, and his versatility alone should put him soon enough in contention for consistent first-team minutes. In Sunday’s 20-minute cameo, Bryan immediately linked up with Reguilón on the left to create attacking angles, combining with Sergio six times and all in the attacking third. He was 3/3 in take-ons against an Arsenal side that had taken its foot off the gas, but also had four ball recoveries. Most importantly, he injected some energy into a Spurs side that desperately needed it.
In Wednesday’s League Cup tie against Wolves, he put in a Man of the Match performance, constantly working and converting a penalty in the shoot-out. He also won seven duels against Wolves, was extremely accurate in progressively passing the ball, and won multiple fouls.
Gil is a serious prospect and while there may be issues to iron out like there is with any young player, his ceiling is high, and he has done enough to consider him in the starting lineup.
While Wednesday’s League Cup tie versus Wolves showed flashes of Ndombele’s individual ability, it also showed his flaws. Against Arsenal, Ndombele failed to get anything going and the reality is that when Ndombele is not on his A-game, the team really struggles. Ndombele failed to get back multiple times in defense and while Spurs simply have to continue to give him chances to get him back to his best form, as of now it’s clear he does not have the fitness to last for 90 minutes with consistency.
With serious concerns over Ndombele and the club’s reliance on ball progression through him in midfield when he plays, it may behoove Spurs to look for other alternatives and perhaps newer faces on the pitch to answer their clear challenges. Bryan’s versatility means he could slot in there as needed, either as Ndombele’s replacement should the Frenchman need a spell or in place of Dele.
It looked like there would be a resurgence for Dele under Nuno at the start of the season where his improved physique would allow him to play in a box-to-box role. However, Sunday’s game was a poor outing. No longer playing a role as a number ten or via a shadow striker role behind Kane, Dele’s position in the starting lineup may have become expendable.
Similarly, the same can be said for Lucas, who has played predominantly out on the right wing. Lucas obviously has provided some heroic moments during his time at Spurs, but he’s been notoriously inconsistent during his time at Tottenham. So whether it is in central midfield or out on the wing where he can perform his take-ons, Bryan needs to be considered for either one of these spots.
While we don’t know what Nuno will react to this loss, it would not be surprising to see him insert Skipp back into the starting lineup, which, in essence, means that Spurs will have to include Ndombele (or Giovani Lo Celso) in the starting XI to have any creative ball-progression ability in midfield.
Giving Bryan more game experience will only help him improve in fulfilling his potential. In assessing this Spurs side, it is clear that ball-progression is an issue. The Spaniard simply makes things happen wherever he lines up. What is for certain is that what Spurs are doing right now is simply not working. Tottenham need a major shake-up fast and inserting Bryan into the lineup, perhaps either for Dele or Lucas, could provide some improvement and positivity to a club that severely needs a boost. Whether it is out on the wing or in a unique midfield role, Bryan must be in the starting XI.
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