Tottenham Hotspur defeated Fulham at home today 2-0 behind goals from Son Heung-Min and James Maddison. The win put them back at the top of the Premier League table and cemented Tottenham’s best start to a season since the title-winning campaign of 1960-61.
That should make Spurs head coach Ange Postecoglou pretty happy, right? Nope. In his post-match press conference, Big Ange spent more time noting how Spurs had let their performance slip in the second half, making silly passes and decisions and nearly letting Fulham back into the match late in the game.
“I thought we showed our patience and I thought our pressing was outstanding the whole game. Maybe the first half we could have had one or two more just to put the game to bed. But really disappointed with the second half. With the ball we were nowhere near the levels we have been all year. That’s probably the worst sort of 45 minutes with the ball we’ve had all year.
“We’ve got to make sure we stay disciplined in our approach because in the end [Vicario] made a couple of great saves to keep a clean sheet. Within that context we should have had much better control of the game than we did.”
It was notable that once Postecoglou brought on his substitutes in this match, the game started to slip away from them. It was especially notable after the 80th minute, when Ange made a triple sub, bringing in Alejo Veliz, Giovani Lo Celso, and Brennan Johnson for goal scorers Son Heung-Min & James Maddison, and Richarlison. The substitutes never seemed to be on the same page and looked well off of the standards of the starters. In fact, from that point on, Spurs looked more like the team that crashed out to Fulham in the Carabao Cup on penalties than the one that has launched Spurs to the top of the table after nine games.
It’s not like Postecoglou to throw his players under the bus, and he quite notably didn’t do that here. But he did make it clear that he was not happy with what he saw from his team late in the game, and it’s not difficult to extrapolate out here.
“I’m not trying to make a point, it’s just what I saw. I thought we were really wasteful with the ball in the second half. We took some liberties with taking extra touches. I’ve been around long enough to know if you try to take liberties, you’ll get dragged down pretty quickly.
“I’m not going to let the fact that we’ve won the game disguise the opportunity there for us to improve. In the second half, with the ball we weren’t anywhere near the levels we’ve already shown this year and there was no real reason for it. It wasn’t as if the opposition did anything different. It was more self-inflicted.
“My role in that was to give feedback to the players. That’s what they want. They want to get better, they want to improve. I’ve got some stuff there to show them.
“I’ve said every week that I’ve sat here that we’ve still got a long way to go. That doesn’t change. We’re still nine games in, at the beginning of building something. It would be so much easier for me to sit here and say we’re a great team.
“What I’m saying is that we have to improve. That responsibility is on me to make sure we do. We can be better, absolutely we can. Within that context, without the ball I thought we were brilliant tonight. We were outstanding. Let’s not discount it.
“It takes a hell of a lot of effort and commitment from the boys to that side of the game. That was there the whole time. That side of the game got us the victory tonight. But we need to be better when we have the ball as well.”
We’ve noted on this very blog that Spurs are riding a very thin line between an excellent league campaign and an injury crisis that could throw the project off the tracks. The second half of the Fulham match, and particularly the last 20 minutes, put a pretty fine point on how Tottenham’s depth is not yet where it should be and potentially illustrates that there is the possibility of improvement, either this coming January or further down the road.
It should be noted that there are some mitigating factors at play. Giovani Lo Celso and Brennan Johnson didn’t look sharp, but both were playing their first minutes for Spurs since recovering from significant injuries. Dejan Kulusevski interrupted what was an overall pretty good match when he made a notably poor pass in midfield that led to a big chance Guglielmo Vicario was thankfully able to save. Oliver Skipp... well. Moving on.
Likewise, several of Spurs’ players that started and went the full 90 looked notably tired by the end. Spurs have a short turnaround this week, needing to play away to Crystal Palace in just four days, so the player rotation was likely planned and required to give Spurs’ key players a bit more of a rest.
It was a win, but it wasn’t great there at the end. That said, if that’s the worst thing you can say after a 2-0 Premier League win, that’s pretty okay. The one thing I do like about Big Ange is that he couches that end performance in terms of “I’m going to help them fix it” and not “these players were shit shit today.” As good a start as it’s been, the success of Tottenham’s season may come down to whether he can maximize the play of his players that don’t — and won’t — always be named to the starting XI.