Spurs absolutely thumped Crystal Palace 4-0. So that must mean Spurs are good, right? Erm… dunno. Maybe? Maybe not?
Crystal Palace v Tottenham always promised to be a fascinating game. They are perhaps the two strangest teams in the Premier League.
Both teams are a box of contradictions. They are inconsistent, obviously, but inconsistent in wildly consistent ways. They are impossible to predict, but their unpredictability falls within clearly defined and predictable limits. Neither of them have won any games against top six opponents this season – for Palace make that top half. Spurs are always shit in the first half. Palace are often shit in the second half. Both teams are excellent at clawing back points from losing positions, with the obvious downside there being that both often find themselves needing to claw back points from losing positions.
So really, what we should have expected was for this game to produce a wildly improbable outcome in an entirely predictable way. So that’s what we got. Spurs were terrible in the first half – albeit after a brief and seemingly deceptive bright convention-defying opening 15 minutes – and Palace could easily have been ahead by half-time. Instead it was goalless as Spurs extended their record to one first-half goal in now 11 games. In the second half, Spurs – as they so bafflingly and inexplicably often do – came to life. Four goals still seemed like an unexpectedly large amount, but it’s not even the first time they’ve gone from level at half-time to winning by four this season; they did it to Leicester in September’s bizarre 6-2 win over Brendan Rodgers’ side.
What was different for Spurs tonight was that they scored the first goal, the first time they have done so in any game in any competition since a 2-0 win over Everton in October when Liz Truss was Prime Minister. They hadn’t been 3-0 up in a game since Boris Johnson was still partying away in nominal charge of the country back in May. So this was still at least a relatively novel variation on their now trademark bit.
The speed with which Spurs went from disappointingly second best yet again to 2-0 up at the start of the second half really was jarring. But being surprised by it requires us to be surprised by Harry Kane scoring two Premier League goals, and we should all have gone quite some way past that point by now. He has almost 200 of the things.
What can be said with absolute certainty is that Kane was the catalyst for the second-half transformation. He’s such an easy player to take for granted at times, but when he produces football on the level of the second 45 minutes here you do remember that the banterous lack of trophies and the ballooned World Cup penalties don’t change the fact that this is a genuinely elite footballer. The first goal, overpowering his defender to nod home an inviting Ivan Perisic cross, was a classic bit of what we now call old-fashioned centre-forward play. Convention demands it provoke comparisons to Alan Shearer among pundits and co-commentators and a discussion on when/if Kane will break the great man’s Premier League record.
The second goal was just peak Kane. The sort of goal that looks good but unremarkable at first glance and only on repeat viewings does its mastery truly reveal itself. It’s the type of goal few players can score but that Kane does so often as to make it look routine. First, he’s involved in the build-up, which is very on-brand. But when he receives the ball inside the penalty area the speed of thought and execution are devilish. Two perfect touches – the first with the outside of the right boot to trap the ball, the second with the instep to drill it inexorably, inevitably into the bottom corner – have been and gone in the blink of an eye. By the time defenders and goalkeeper realise what’s happening it is already too late.
From there, Spurs simply picked a shellshocked Palace off on the break. Further goals for Matt Doherty and Son Heung-min rounded off the evening, with Son’s goal in particular making it a near perfect evening for Antonio Conte and his side. Son back in the goals, Kane back to his best after an understandable post-World Cup funk, a clean sheet of all things. It was all vital, not just because of the worsening results both after the World Cup and in the run-up to Qatar but in light of what follows. After an FA Cup clash with Portsmouth this weekend, Spurs’ next four Premier League games are against Arsenal, Manchester City, Fulham and Manchester City again. They had to keep in touch with the top four here, and they did so.
For all the perfect things about this result, there are still so many of the same nagging questions. The first half was still rubbish – arguably more so than normal because this time they actually had some early superiority and promptly ceded it with barely a whimper. We know Spurs can be lethal in 30-minute bursts from a standing start, so while it would be a stretch to say anyone could have predicted what would happen after half-time it wasn’t actually anything new. We know there is an undeniable yet oddly fragile resilience to this group. What we still don’t know is quite why they start games so sluggishly so often. At least the always fanciful notion that it was a deliberate tactic to conserve energy before the World Cup can now be formally consigned to the bin.
We still don’t really know whether this is a good side that often plays badly or a bad one that can sometimes produce short spells of greatness. But when the stars align, those half-hours where everything flows are both breathtaking and tantalising. They highlight just how good this team can be while emphasising that for the most part they are not. The contrast between Good Spurs and Bad Spurs is so staggeringly vast and yet most games give you a decent look at both. The Villa game was uniquely disappointing and unusual because Spurs were wretched for 90 rather than the standard 60 minutes. And they’ve been doing this sort of thing since the very start of the season; on the opening day they went 1-0 down to Southampton before scoring four goals in 42 minutes either side of half-time.
They still don’t look anything like a top-four side but absolutely look like a team that might finish in the top four. What does that even mean? They are still a side that creates too few chances but scores huge numbers of goals. They are still a baffling, infuriating puzzle. They look to have a squad desperately short of depth, and yet have just won 4-0 away without Kulusevski, Bentancur, Bissouma and Richarlison.
They’ll probably win both games against City, won’t they? Just to add to the disorienting effect of watching this Spurs team, Arsenal will be deliriously cheering them on if they do.
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