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Three things we learned from Tottenham’s Champions League draw with Sporting

Spurs aren’t especially good. Neither is VAR. But maybe Bryan Gil could be?

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Tottenham Hotspur v Sporting CP: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

We’ve had a night to sleep on it, and it still doesn’t feel any better. Tottenham Hotspur drew at home to Sporting Lisbon in the group stage of the Champions League on Wednesday — had they won the match (and they sure thought they had) they would’ve clinched their group and progressed to the knock-out stages with one match yet to play.

For sure, one of the discussion points is that Tottenham had ample opportunities to put the game away and didn’t do so, but that’s not what everyone’s talking about — once again, it’s VAR and its impact on the game, for good or for ill.

We’ll talk about that too. But here are a couple of other things we learned from this match.

Tottenham are a team without an identity... or perhaps too much of one

It’s been a little puzzling watching Spurs and trying to work out why things were working so well last season and significantly less well this season. What we know is that under Antonio Conte, Tottenham are a highly regimented side. They have a distinct way that Conte wants them to play — strong defensive structure, precise passing patterns and pressing based on phases of play and triggers, and emphasis on quick counterattacks when regaining the ball. That system worked great in the latter part of the 2021-22 season.

So what’s changed? Well, for starters most of Tottenham’s stars have taken at least a half-step back in terms of production. Son Heung-Min is off the boil compared to last year’s stats. Harry Kane has ten goals but his contributions don’t feel as impactful as last season. But also, it really does feel as though opposition clubs have figured Spurs out — they know what to expect from a Conte side and can prepare for one of a small number of contingencies.

Now, I’m not really sure that’s what was going on against Sporting on Wednesday night. Tottenham played a diabolically poor first half before coming out and crushing Sporting on xG in the second. Even taking away the (awful) VAR’d ungoal, they had numerous chances to put the game away and either missed their chances or had them saved. But it’s a continuation of a pattern that has cropped up ever since Dejan Kulusevski went down with an injury — without him in the side to add a spark of creativity going forward, Tottenham struggle to generate coherent attacks while in possession. The Patterns™ aren’t doing their jobs, and other clubs are taking advantage.

It’s left Spurs looking rather adrift — when the system doesn’t work, there doesn’t seem to be a plan B, and Tottenham ends up looking like they’re repeatedly trying to run into a brick wall until it crumbles. What the team needs, and this isn’t a shock to anyone because we’ve been saying it for months, is a creative playmaker.

Which brings us to...

Bryan Gil’s chaos energy made a difference

When Bryan Gil came on as a substitute for a largely ineffective Matt Doherty in the 71st minute, it represented something of a rolling of the dice for Conte. Bryan nearly went back out on loan this past season, has yet to play in the Premier League, and has only 39 minutes of match action this season, all in the Champions League. However, the injuries to Kulusevski and Richarlison has positioned Bryan as the next man up after Lucas Moura.

He took full advantage of his opportunity against Sporting, buzzing around the pitch like a terrier in a Beatles wig, drawing defenders out of position, and making a nuisance of himself. Was he GOOD? Welllllllllllllll... I’m not sure I’d go that far. He certainly wasn’t anything close to “positionally consistent.” But he sure was FUN. Gil brought a different kind of chaotic, creative energy to the pitch that was sorely lacking, and he certainly flustered Sporting’s defensive line with his runs into and around the box.

Gil doesn’t appear to be a “Conte-type” player and you can sort of understand why Spurs’ boss doesn’t fully trust him — if Conte’s system is one of those adult coloring books, Bryan’s game is taking a chisel-tip Sharpie and scribbling all over the page. But in Deki’s absence, Spurs have looked rather flat and uninspiring, and Bryan undoubtedly was a plus-add. There are significant questions as to whether Bryan has the consistency to be a significant player for Spurs this season, but after a cameo in which he had a pretty good impact, it feels like he should start getting more of a shot.

Throw VAR in the bin

OK, I want to be careful here. As mad as I am about Kane’s overturned goal (and yeah, I’m pretty furious), I should note that Spurs had ample opportunities to put this game away and didn’t, either due to missed chances or the outstanding play of Sporting keeper Antonio Adan, who had five saves, all of them good. But boy howdy, it’s hard to look at that decision and not have it be exhibit A why VAR needs to be abandoned except for very specific circumstances.

There’s a lot of compelling arguments to be made about the arbitrary nature of the lines used — when they were placed, how they were placed, and the various camera angles used to justify their placement. Let’s set those aside for now. Based on my understanding of that particular play (largely informed by this Athletic article from last night), the crux of the issue came down to whether the touch off of the Sporting defender is defined as a deliberate football play or as a deflection. Here’s the relevant portion from Law 11 in the rules of the game:

“A player in an offside position at the moment the ball is played or touched by a team-mate is only penalised on becoming involved in active play by… gaining an advantage by playing the ball or interfering with an opponent when it has rebounded or been deflected off the goalpost, crossbar, match official or an opponent.

“A player in an offside position receiving the ball from an opponent who deliberately plays the ball, including by deliberate handball, is not considered to have gained an advantage.”

If the touch off the Sporting defender was considered a deliberate football action, it starts a new phase of play, and Kane’s (ostensibly marginal) offside position doesn’t matter — the new phase means that he is not considered offside and the goal would stand. If it is deemed a deflection, then Kane is determined by Law 11 to have gained an advantage and the goal is offside. The five minute deliberation seems to have been not only checking the arbitrary lines but also determining whether the touch was deliberate or not. The direction of Emerson Royal’s headed ball — backwards, forwards, whatever — is not relevant.

Now, the Sporting player was clearly and actively attempting to defend Emerson Royal when the ball left his head, so it’s very hard for me to say with a straight face that he was NOT trying to block the ball, but that’s not how the VAR official saw it. That, plus The Lines™ determining that Kane’s knee was millimeters offside, was enough to wave off the goal, and the win.

If this feels like a ridiculous way to adjudicate the legitimacy of goals, you’re absolutely right. This is a brand new, novel, Zapruder-esque way of interpreting a black and white rule, and there’s so much squishy arbitrariness due to factors that we’ve already discussed to death already that I don’t even know what more to say. Offside is not a rule, it’s a chaotic mess of independent variables masquerading as a rule. No human being could’ve made the determination VAR did at full speed in open play. Meanwhile, a stadium full of people and everyone watching at home had to wait a full five minutes to have their celebrations nullified without even an explanation as to why.

VAR has its uses, some of them good. However, in this particular situation, it’s a solution in search of a problem, and it had to work pretty damn hard to find the problem. It has let the perfect get in the way of the good. In the process, it has arguably robbed Tottenham of not only a win but also progression to the next round of the Champions League, and has sucked the fun completely out of the game. It needs serious fixing, or it needs to be eliminated.