The problem with beating a good team as an underdog is that the expectations in future matches go up significantly. Tottenham Hotspur Women shocked WSL runners-up Manchester City 2-1 back in September, their first ever win against a member of the Women’s Super League elite, and hosted City at the Hive on Sunday hoping for a similar level of effort and result. The effort they got — With Ledley King watching from the stands, Tottenham put in a valiant defensive effort against a very good City side — but fell 1-0 at The Hive to a 64’ goal by Caroline Weir.
Tottenham have one of the best defensive sides in the league and put out a very strong lineup on Sunday, anchored by Molly Bartrip and Shelina Zadorsky. Speedy winger Jessica Naz was not in the matchday side, presumably due to injury. Former Tottenham player Alanna Kennedy started in City’s back line.
In a match that was televised on the BBC, Spurs and City faced off with two very distinct styles of play. City have a high-flying attack and set out to try and possess and play directly through Spurs as much as possible. Tottenham manager Rehanne Skinner, by contrast, set Spurs up to defend and blunt City’s attack, and hit back fast on the counter through the hold-up play of Rachel Williams and the speedy wing attack of reigning WSL player of the month Ashleigh Neville, again deployed in an attacking midfield role, and Kyah Simon.
Spurs were able to test City’s defensive line early on — five minutes in Neville put a ball towards Evaliina Summanen who made a well timed run into the box, but the City keeper Ellie Roebuck smartly sussed out the danger and collected the attempt. A few minutes later Spurs picked off the ball in midfield and Williams, noting that Roebuck was off her line, launched a long shot that went well over the bar.
The first half was played at an almost frenetic pace, with Spurs pressing hard to compact and congest the middle of the field and force turnovers. Defensively, Spurs thew bodies at the ball whenever City attackers Lauren Hemp and Georgia Stanway got on the ball, ensuring that any shot attempts were made through a forest of trees.
For their part, Spurs were constantly looking to push forward whenever they received the ball, hoping to catch City off guard. Tottenham pressed City ferociously, causing several turnovers high up the pitch, though they were rarely able to generate any real efforts on goal to test Roebuck. Their defense also held, with City not really testing Spencer either.
Spurs were forced into an early change after a heavy challenge on Kyah Simon, with Rosella Ayane replacing the Aussie international in midfield.
The first half ended scoreless, but with both sides looking like they had the ability score. Spurs certainly put in a good accounting and at times looked like the more dangerous side.
Both clubs opted to make personnel changes at the intermission. Tottenham took off Rachel Williams for midfielder Josie Green, with the implication that she noticed an injury issue that forced her withdrawal. That changed the shape to more of a 4-3-3, with Summanen and Cho pushing up to play as the forward attackers. City made a like-for-like adjustment in Julie Blakstad for Demi Stokes, who had also picked up a knock.
The loss of Williams had knock-on effects for Spurs in the second half. Williams is a huge part of Spurs’ attack, and Spurs had a much more difficult time getting through into space without her hold-up play, relying more on progressive balls from Maeva Clemaron and Ria Percival. City meanwhile turned up the physicality, and went close in the 53rd minute when Caroline Weir fired a free kick off the post.
But the star for Spurs Women in the second half was keeper Becky Spencer, who put in a heroic performance between the sticks. She bravely punched away a two dangerous City corners and made an excellent save on a shot by Hayley Raso all within the first 15 minutes of the half.
The breakthrough for City came at 63’ and wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to be. Raso again got free behind Spurs’ back line thanks to a through ball from Lucy Bronze, and forced an excellent save by Spencer, but Weir was in the right place to scuff home the follow-up effort.
Without Simon, Williams, Naz, or Chioma Ubogagu who also was not in the side, Spurs did not have the offensive firepower to respond. Skinner brought on Tang Jiali and, eventually, Angela Addison to try and snatch an equalizer but Spurs struggled to make the same sort of offensive impact after going down. Ashleigh Neville and Ellie Roebuck had a strong coming together midway through the half on a 50/50 ball that earned Ash a yellow card; Roebuck managed to hold onto the ball and was fine with some on-field treatment.
To their credit, Spurs never quit or looked outmatched by City despite the gulf in talent. City were forced to make an emergency keeper change, with 17-year old Khiara Keating, normally fourth choice, forced into the match with four minutes to play. Spurs never really got an opportunity to test the youngster in goal, and despite a valiant effort by Tottenham, City were able to do just enough to earn the three points.
The loss means Spurs stay in fourth place in the WSL table, three behind United, and two ahead of City, however City have a game in hand. A challenging match and a disappointing result, but a real statement of intent from a Tottenham side that still believes they can hang with the big girls at the top of the table. They’ll get a chance for another signature win on Wednesday; Spurs travel to play title-contending Chelsea at Kingsmeadow.