With their team playing midweek on the road under the lights at one of the more raucous environments in the league at Selhurst Park, many Tottenham Hotspur supporters did not have the most confidence in a short-handed squad that got crushed at home over the weekend against Aston Villa. With injuries to key figures such as Rodrigo Bentancur, Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison, Spurs supporters knew that this would be a challenging stretch run in January both on and off the field with matches against Arsenal and Manchester City approaching as well as the cloud of the transfer window hanging over Antonio Conte and the board.
With the injuries as well as the one-game yellow card accumulation suspension to Yves Bissouma, this had the feeling of a real gut-check match for the club and in particular to Conte. The Italian manager is enduring perhaps the most challenging period yet of his Spurs tenure and his comments in the press have not given Spurs supporters much encouragement regarding his short and long-term future
Regardless, the match started out well for Spurs with the away side producing the best of the chances in the opening fifteen minutes. Palace, who have game-breaking talents in their attack like Michael Olise, Wilfried Zaha and Eberechi Eze, eventually found their footing, displaying danger and forcing Hugo Lloris into an important save before halftime after a snap shot by Jordan Ayew.
At halftime, it seemed like Spurs were continuing what they started against Villa, and looked like the favorites to concede first for the 12th consecutive match. However, after the stodgy first-half performance, the second half was really the Harry Kane show. Minutes into the 2nd period, Kane soared in a goal from a header assisted from Ivan Perišić against the run of play. Minutes later, Kane whipped in a smart finish, assisted by Bryan Gil, and immediately Spurs had Palace on the ropes. Even down 0-2, Palace tried to get back into the match, but it led to to them being exposed in the back and Spurs really finished the game off with goals by Matt Doherty and Son Heung-min.
While the three points were extremely important, especially considering Spurs had not won at Palace since November 2018, it took spectacular moments from Kane for Spurs to win. However, considering the run they were in, Spurs needed to get the three points in any way they could.
After falling out of the top 4 league places, it was imperative Spurs get back on the right track after the Villa performance. And while it was not most dominant performance, there were a ton of key takeaways that should give Spurs and its supporters some encouragement. The main ones, however, were Son getting on the goal sheet and the clean sheet kept by Lloris and the defense.
Weird as it may sound, Wednesday’s match was the first this season that South Korean has scored in a match he started. Despite his infrequent goal return this season, Spurs have somewhat weathered the storm — highlighted by the club’s best 10-game start to a season since 1963 by taking 23 points in their first 10 games. Should Spurs get Son firing again, it would certainly be huge for the attack considering how much they have depended on Kane this season.
The clean sheet was equally important to Conte’s side. It was the club’s first clean sheet in any competition since October 15. When Spurs went on the all-important run at the end of last season to get them into Champions League qualification, it was their ability to keep matches in front of them which helped paved the way.
This season, due to poor runs of form from Eric Dier and Lloris as well as players like Cristian Romero having an eye on the World Cup, the defense has been extremely leaky and a main reason why Spurs have been chasing matches with consistency in second halves. Conte wants his teams to be compact and together as they move up and down the pitch. But in playing this way, they certainly are susceptible to mistakes and that is highlighted by Spurs’ five miscues that have directly led to goals — the highest in the league. As Spurs face matches against sides with more quality and attacking dimension, an inconsistent defense will be the architecture for their demise as it will be harder to chase matches against sides who can put 3 and 4 on teams.
Looking at the rest of the squad, we saw significant minutes handed to players like Bryan Gil, Pape Matar Sarr, as well as a professional debut for academy skilled set-piece specialist Harvey White. For Gil, it was his second-consecutive start due to the injury of Kulusevski. And while it took a bit for him to find his footing after a first half where he gave the ball away a ton, he showed his quality in the second half. In very limited match time, it has become clear that Gil offers something that perhaps only Kulusevski can offer in the squad. Despite his small size and lack of physical stature, he is a terrific dribbler and shows a lot of graft when possessing the ball. In addition, the weight of his passes is something that is easily impressive. He played a perfect pass into Kane’s path for Kane’s second goal.
Wednesday was Sarr’s second consecutive appearance after making his club debut in the weekend against Villa. The youngster may be behind a few options in midfield, but he put in a very good shift and displayed his maturity beyond his age. Keep in mind that despite being just 20 years of age, Sarr was the best player on his team in France last season on an admittedly poor Metz side.
For awhile, a lot of Spurs supporters were clamoring for Conte to utilize some other options. And while the Italian may have been forced into the changes due to injuries and suspensions for some, the pair of Gil and Sarr showed that both are deserving of minutes — a good problem for Spurs to have with multiple competitions (Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup) still to be played.
This was obviously an important couple of weeks but the hard work continues for Conte and his staff. There is a large portion of the fanbase that is fully behind Conte due to his comments in keeping the board accountable. The impact of those comments will only hold more importance if Spurs can push on with a good run of form.
Days ago, it felt like doom and gloom after the loss to Villa. But with key players getting healthy to come back into the fold as well as some possible reinforcements to come in, there’s time to turn the season around. There is still a lot of season to play. Fans’ opinion of the season could become as positive as it has been negative. Regardless of how the fanbase feels about the board and/or Conte, one thing that is for certain is that the club have yet to fully kick into gear this season and they are right in the thick of things on many fronts. With plenty of season left, Spurs still have it all to play in front of them.
Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.