Tottenham began the post-Harry Kane era with a 2-2 draw away to Brentford on Sunday but delivered a performance full of promise that suggests there is, indeed, life after their talisman.
The north Londoners took the lead early on as Cristian Romero nodded home James Maddison’s pinpoint free-kick, though the Argentine had to be immediately subbed off due to a head injury sustained in an earlier collision.
Brentford rallied thanks to a soft penalty given away by newly appointed captain Son Heung-min, which Bryan Mbuemo converted expertly, and then went ahead when Yoane Wissa’s tame shot took a big deflection off Micky van de Ven.
Spurs briefly looked a little rattled as the volume at the Community Stadium ramped up and were very open at the back, but they found a leveller shortly before the break as Emerson Royal rifled in from the edge of the box.
The visitors exerted a huge amount of control in the second half but struggled to carve out clear-cut chances, surviving a few scares in their own penalty box to collect a point in Ange Postecoglou’s first Premier League game in charge.
Supporters would have hoped for three points but 70% possession and 18 shots on goal highlights the dominance Spurs enjoyed – something they have rarely done on their travels in recent seasons. Given how strong Brentford have been at home, beating four of the big six last season, there were plenty of positives – and a few negatives – to take from the performance…
Scoring goals was not a major problem for Tottenham last season and, even without the now departed Kane, they still have an abundance of attacking weapons – including the 2021/22 Golden Boot winner. It was defending that was the biggest issue, conceding 63 goals last season – the 15th worst record in the division.
With Postecoglou stripping away Antonio Conte’s defensive shackles and asking his back-line to play far higher up the pitch, they feel even more exposed than previously – particularly down the flanks with both full-backs asked to tuck in. The volume of counter-attack chances they conceded was a theme in pre-season and that continued against Brentford.
There was so much space for the home side to break into, so many instances where defenders were left 1-v-1, and in many ways Brentford’s setup is the worst Postecoglou could have faced in his first Premier League game in charge. Spurs really should have gone into half-time 3-2 down, but Mbuemo failed to convert a sweeping counter.
New goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario, while he could do little about both goals, looked a tad nervy and flappable. Some of his sweeping produced a few heart-in-mouth moments while his passing was shaky. Fellow new recruit Van de Ven looks a good fit for the system but will take time to mature, while Destiny Udogie was a livewire.
One of the biggest problems Spurs had last season was how reactive and passive they were while Conte’s formation routinely left the holding midfield duo outnumbered. The very specific tactical role of the central midfielders, and how deep they were required to drop, was a massive issue and also clearly at odds with the skillsets of many of the players in the squad.
Chief among those was Yves Bissouma, who had a very difficult first season in north London and did not mesh with Conte’s philosophy. But he feels perfect for Postecoglou’s front-foot style and has looked a man reborn this summer.
The former Brighton midfielder was the most impressive player on the pitch in Sunday’s game, getting on the ball and dictating the pace and tempo of the match. Last season he was collecting the ball on the edge of his own box, now he was penning the opposition into theirs. He played the most passes of any player (112), hounded the opposition and also showed plenty of craft and creativity.
New addition Maddison found space hard to come by as Brentford sat deep but picked up some lovely pockets of space while his set-pieces were a constant threat. There is a role up for grabs as the box-to-box midfielder, with Oliver Skipp showing plenty of endeavour but not too much else, while Emerson – despite his goal – does not feel an ideal fit for the inverted full-back role given how much time is spent in central midfield areas.
A KANE-LESS ATTACK
Plenty of pressure will be placed on Richarlison to fill the goalscoring void left by Kane – a tall ask, perhaps, for a player who only netted one Premier League goal last season. While he did not get on the scoresheet against Brentford, he showed plenty of flashes and looks a good fit for what Postecoglou requires.
He worked tirelessly up top against a rugged and robust defence that sat very deep. He constantly made darting runs in behind, creating space for the attackers behind him, and never sulked when he was not found. Maddison did pick him out twice and they already seem to have established a good rapport.
Perhaps the issue for Spurs is not so much the starting striker, but the one they have in reserve – which does not exist at the moment. Argentine teenager Alejo Veliz is not likely to be an option in the immediate term and it left the bench looking just a little light. Tottenham have been linked with a move for Gent’s breakout star Gift Orban and he feels like an ideal understudy to Richarlison.
Both Spurs skipper Son and Dejan Kulusevski had quiet games and there are still some question marks over just how suited they are to the wide roles in Postecoglou’s system. As the final minutes ticked away Spurs did look a tad blunt despite their good play, but against less stubborn rearguards it feels like there will be plenty of goals up for grabs.
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