Tottenham are through to the last 16, but does it have to be this hard?
Never really in doubt was it? Except, of course, for all those moments in the opening 45 minutes when it looked wholly and entirely in doubt, as Tottenham produced a mind‑numbingly cautious first half in Marseille but still had enough drive to secure what felt by the end like a pointlessly painful victory.
Three points put them top of Group D, in the hat for whatever might happen in that strange, distant place known as the second half of the season. And whatever the manner of victory, this is a significant moment.
Related: Lenglet and Højbjerg complete Spurs comeback at Marseille to win group
Failing to make it through this group would have been a devastating blow: financially, but also in terms of heft and lustre. For Antonio Conte there is the issue of basic relevance, of still being a player in this thing. Spurs are third in the league and into the knockout stages. Their passage here was tricky, with key players missing and Conte glowering on from the stands.
This is tangible progress. Perhaps the sight of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, in agony, drained, beside himself after slotting a spectacular last-second winning goal might even offer a note of ignition to the season.
Is it enough though? Spurs are also the 10th richest football club in the world. And this victory will raise questions too, mainly some basic notions of style and intent, about how exactly Spurs want to do this, what they want their football to feel like.
Conte is a managerial paradox in his own right. Here is a charismatic, vibrant, glitzy presence, whose teams exist in a fiercely controlled state of caution; whose own wild touchline gymnastics are like a mocking counter-commentary on the rigidly drilled nature of his football.
How exactly does this act of vanity work? At the very least, does it have to be this hard? The Stade Vélodrome is a cauldron-ish place, all son et lumière and theatrical waves of noise. But Marseille are not an intimidating team, fifth in Ligue 1 right now and bottom of Group B at start of play.
This was a strikingly even group on matchday six, in part because it also wasn’t a very good group. None of these teams are actual champions. Spurs are the only one currently in the top three of their domestic league.
So this was a night for being active from the start, for forcing the moment. Tottenham, well, Tottenham sat deep in their flat back five, three midfielders in front. This is the way of this team. They want to play less football, not more, to win by counterthrust, by playing just enough football and no more. Is this really how this thing works now?
Conte did do something unusual, starting with inverted wing‑backs, Ryan Sessegnon on the right, Ivan Perisic on the left. The net effect was to amplify the threat outside, most notably on Sessegnon’s side. And Spurs’ intentions seemed obvious enough in a dreadful first half. Make the game boring. Take the football out of this. A foul, a stoppage, dead ends, stubbed toes. This is all good. Their greatest comfort at that stage was the bluntness of Marseille’s final pass.
Spurs lost Son Heung-min, shaken after a violent aerial challenge, although he had at that point completed one pass in 28 minutes on the pitch. And once again they managed the odd trick of being cautious, deep, double-banked, but also oddly porous and brittle. Is this a thing worth sharing with Europe’s elite teams? Where does it hope to go? Finally Marseille scored. Chancel Mbemba’s header was a lovely thing.
Spurs’ dithering at the corner less so.
And through this there was a familiar sadness about watching Harry Kane in this team. He roams across those spaces, looks for stray balls. It’s just a kind of scavenging existence, living off your wits, pushing that trolley across an empty landscape. Early on Son picked up the ball, ran forward, saw only Kane surrounded by white shirts, then just turned and ran back – towards what exactly? – before finding himself surrounded.
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But Tottenham changed, abruptly, as the second half started. The wing‑backs had switched to their stronger sides. The midfield played with more aggression. Spurs were kind-of transformed. That is, they looked like a football team here to show something of themselves. There was even something agreeable in Clément Lenglet scoring the equaliser, excellent on the night, delighted with his moment and, let’s face it, a quiz question in the making in years to come. Spurs’ past nine goals have all come in the second half. This feels like an oversight, or a misreading of the rules.
The first half also exists. It is allowed.
From there the second half was gripping, but gripping in a way that shouldn’t have been required. When Spurs passed the ball and showed attacking ambition it was clear Marseille were there for the taking.
Rodrigo Bentancur was classy and assertive, a midfielder too good to be asked simply to sit. Højbjerg won it at the death with a wonderful finish. A year into the age of Antonio, there is a chance here to build something.