Saturday’s match between Tottenham Hotspur and Leeds United was not your typical Premier League match. With a final score of 4-3 that featured a game-tying goal in the 80th minute with the game-winning/go-ahead goal just two minutes later, you could say this match was pretty bonkers from start to finish. However, if you’re a Spurs or Leeds fan that has followed their respective teams all season, perhaps the match was just about the only way it could have possibly played out.
On one hand, Leeds are no strangers to playing in high tempo, high scoring games that feel like more of a basketball game than a football match. Because of their aggressiveness and their playing style, Leeds can score goals as often as they can let them in. Just last week, Leeds came back from a 1-3 deficit at home by scoring three second-half goals en route to an important victory over Bournemouth.
On the other hand, you have Spurs who seem to like to play when they are down and are more than happy to stay the course when they are level (more on this later). But another thing with Spurs — probably because of how often they have faced deficits this season — is their penchant for the dramatic by coming back late in matches.
Not every game in the Premier League is 4-3 thriller with goals galore, but maybe this result was actually to be expected. Make no mistake about it, this was an important game for Spurs. After consecutive losses against Liverpool in the league and Nottingham Forest in the League Cup, Spurs needed to get back on track in this final match before the World Cup break.
Spurs enter the international break fourth in the league (just a point behind Newcastle) and also have a place secured in the knockouts in the UEFA Champions League. If you had told any Spurs supporter that this would be the case at this point in the season, everyone would have taken it. However, because of the often unconvincing nature of Spurs’ performances and the unfortunate reality that Arsenal sit atop the table, it is understandable why this season has felt somewhat poor despite the results. With a much-needed opportunity to recuperate from injuries and perhaps bring in some reinforcements via the transfer market, this unusual mid-season break truly comes at the perfect time for the Lilywhites. Let’s take a look at a number of themes and takeaways from this eventful match that have been in view all season long.
Spurs are slow starters, but strong finishers
Spurs once again conceded first in this match against Leeds. This marks the eighth consecutive game that they have done so. The last game they have scored first was the 2-0 clean sheet victory against Everton back on October 15. In these eight games, Spurs’ record is 3-1-4. So while they have struggled recently, it has not all been terrible from a results perspective. While it is quite frustrating how they have been starting so poorly in their matches, we do have to be fair and mention just how well they have finished their matches recently. It is about finding that consistency and striking that balance. Luckily for Antonio Conte and Spurs, this time off should allow the Italian and his staff to review what has worked and identify what can be improved on.
Right wingback is still a problem
To put it quite frankly, this was perhaps Emerson’s worst performance of the season and that is saying something considering how he has struggled to adapt to the wingback role. In attack, he flubbed arguably Spurs’ best chance of the day and was the root cause of a lot of attacks that ended abruptly. Whether it was the final pass or simple passes in shuffling the ball around, Emerson turned the ball away in dangerous areas multiple times in this one. Things were almost equally as poor in defense, as his positioning on Crysencio Summerville’s first goal as well as another Summerville opportunity moments later raised eyebrows. He was subbed off in the 57th minute in a like-for-like change for Matt Doherty, to ironic cheers as well as jeers from Spurs supporters. Doherty came in and looked bright, but there really has to be a question of why Djed Spence has not gotten more game time.
But Conte just does not seem interested, unless it comes against Nottingham Forest, the team Spence helped to promotion last season. At the start of the season, Conte called Spence “a club signing” which definitely set expectations for this season pretty low for the 22-year-old. However, we are continuing to see the same issues from the right wingback spot regardless of it has been from Emerson or Doherty. I could go into detail, but the simple truth is that neither are good enough. The expectation is that Spurs will go shopping in the position in January, but the January transfer window is always tricky. We do not know if Spence is the solution for the role, but it just seems like time is up for either Emerson or Doherty and only the fans are seeing it.
Spurs are the architects of their own undoing
A theme in recent Spurs seasons has been whether the blame should be placed on players or managers. And while Spurs have had three top-level managers in the last 3-4 years, they are continuing to rely on the same players who seem to be making the same mistakes. In this match, we knew that Leeds were going to press Spurs high and ultimately take advantage of mistake-prone players in Spurs’ side. On more than a few occasions, particularly when Spurs were level at 2-2, there was a spell of roughly 10 minutes where Leeds pinned Spurs back and really were doing anything they wanted. The back three/back five gave the ball away in dangerous situations time after time, which ultimately led Conte to bring on Yves Bissouma for some more assurance in the middle of the pitch.
Looking at the first goal, it was too easy for Leeds to break through. It was evident as soon as American Brendan Aaronson wriggled free from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. After finding Summerville, the youngster found the pocket of space between Eric Dier — playing at right centerback at the time — and Emerson before pelting one past Hugo Lloris. Since Cristian Romero’s injury, Spurs have conceded a number of goals and opportunities from that particular pocket of space between the right centerback and right wingback spot regardless of whether Dier or Davinson Sánchez has played in that role.
In the second goal, Spurs failed to clear their lines and left their defense in disarray. In the process, Spurs allowed just a little bit of space for Rodrigo to get on the end of a thunderous volley which saw Leeds go into the half at 2-1. For the third goal, a leaky pass from Rodrigo Bentancur gave the ball away in an extremely dangerous area. And while it took a terrific finish once again from Rodrigo to get it past Lloris, the fact of the matter is that Spurs — with how they play and how they want their automated patterns to operate — need to be nearly perfect when progressing the ball forward. It seems like many of their conceded goals this season have come from mistakes and this was the case here.
The Dejan Kulusevski effect
Since the Swede has come back into the side, Spurs’ attacks have looked a bit more formalized. When Deki came on against Liverpool, it looked like Spurs were going to score on each occasion. In the first half against Leeds, he was the catalyst for a number of Spurs’ chances that were promising, but ultimately didn’t quite come off — “close, but no cigar.” We have said it on here many times but Kulusevski’s inclusion just showcases time and time again just how important of a player and figure he is to Spurs and Conte.
He is the type of player who does all of the little things so well. He protects the ball and holds up play, he times runs and stretches defenses, and he plays with such technical ability that it comes as no surprise why he is such a perfect Conte fit. Spurs’ ball progression has been questioned a lot this season, but this area of concern is easily improved once Kulusevski (and Romero) are in the side. A Kulusevski-like player or perhaps someone who can spell his role/offering is a must in January. Ruslan Malinovskyi can be that (but that will be another article in due course).
Spurs need reinforcements in January
Spurs need more players they can rely on. I stopped short of saying they just need more players because the truth is that Conte just does not rely on many players within the squad. Japhet Tanganga, Spence, Pape Matar Sarr, and others are hardly getting a kick in. In Wednesday’s League Cup defeat against Forest, Spurs barely refreshed from their preferred XI. Spurs would do well by adding players who can come in and immediately contribute at a variety of positions.
Whereas last January they brought in Bentancur and Kulusevski, Spurs arguably need 3-4 signings in January to move the club and Conte’s project in the right direction. Fresh talent at right wingback, centerback and another creative-minded attacker should certainly be on the docket.
Hugo Lloris is, finally, declining
Lastly and it should not go understatedly, this season has not been the best for club captain Hugo Lloris. Since coming to Spurs in 2012, Lloris has always been somewhat of a conundrum, both praised and maligned by supporters. While he’s been an outstanding servant of the club and a fantastic shot stopper in his prime, Lloris has made a bevy of mistakes and head-scratching decisions this season that have really hampered Spurs.
Signed to a contract extension in January that runs through 2024, Spurs were hoping to get another productive season or two out of the Frenchman but the truth is that Lloris is no longer making the stops and saves that he once was. On all three of Leeds’ goals on Saturday, it just seemed that Lloris was a step behind. He is still good for a top-class performance (see the recent match against Manchester United in October), but he’s no longer as consistent as he once was. So while Spurs need to make adjustments across the board in the squad, they really need to be looking to the future between the sticks as the end of the road is certainly in sight for Lloris in North London.
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