It had been thirteen days since Spurs’ first team played a competitive match. Thirteen days since a disappointing result at Stamford Bridge. Thirteen days since we saw the likes of Hugo Lloris, Harry Kane, and Davinson Sanchez on the field, but as the old saying goes, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”…
Looking at the starting XI, I think Antonio Conte picked a pretty strong team for this matchup. Spurs came out in their typical 3-4-3 set up with a back three of Ben Davies, Davinson Sanchez, and (the returning) Cuti Romero; wingbacks of Sergio Reguilon and Emerson Royal; a midfield pivot of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Harry Winks; and an attacking front of Lucas Moura, Harrry Kane, and Son Heung-Min (who was also returning from injury). The rest of the squad was rounded out by Steven Bergwijn; Matt Doherty; Jose Rodon; Ryan Sessegnon; Pierluigi Gollini; youngsters Dane Scarlett and Harvey White; and the fresh faces of Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski. With two games coming up in the midweek and weekend, I was very pleased to see this strong of a starting XI on the field against Brighton. Especially since the FA Cup is now the club’s only chance of adding to their trophy cabinet this year.
While the Seagulls controlled the opening ten minutes of the match, it was Spurs who dealt the first blow as the returning Son Heung-Min pounced on a careless Adam Webster pass and found a cutting Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg. PEH alertly hit Harry Kane in space at the top of the box who wowed the Tottenham crowd with a curling rocket past the Brighton keeper to put Spurs up 1-0 in the 13th minute. It was truly vintage Kane as he took advantage of the space he was given ad buried the ball like he has done so many times for Spurs.
The great thing about this goal was that it seemed to fuel the drive of Spurs. From that moment, they continued to press and put pressure on the Brighton defense. Too often we have seen this Spurs team get an early lead and instead of stepping on the other team’s throat and killing the game, they will sit back and park the bus. In all honesty, the last time I remember seeing a Spurs teams get an early lead and really turn up the heat afterwards was Spurs’ 6-1 thumping of Man United at Old Trafford.
Spurs doubled their advantage in the 24th minute as Emerson Royal went on a long run into the Brighton box before launching a… shot… cross… honestly I am not sure what I would call it, but whatever it was, it deflected off of Solly March and past the leaping Brighton keeper. He was unlucky to see this deemed an own goal, but Emerson Royal deserves a lot of credit for the shift he put in against the Seagulls. Since we purchased Emerson from Barcelona, he has been the recipient of a lot of criticism from Spurs fans over his lack of offensive output. While he is clearly a defensive minded right back, I think Emerson is the subject to a lot of unnecesary criticism. On one of our previous episodes of the podcast (previous episodes can be found here), Matt made the point how the transition from RB to RWB was much more difficult than most people would imagine. If this is a sign of things to come, I am excited to see the continual progression of one Emerson Royal who (in my opinion) put on his best performance in a Spurs shirt against Brighton. I will come back to the idea of unnecessary criticism later on.
Spurs continued to control the match on either side of halftime, but things did appear to get a little tense when Yves Bissouma (someone very much on Spurs’ radar as someone they would like to see play at N17) cut the Brighton deficit in half with a superb solo effort in the 63rd minute. I think a lot of fans had the “here we go” feeling at this moment. So many times in recent memory, we have squandered late leads, and fans feared the worst… Little did we know we see the return of our favorite show.
The build up started simply enough with a short pass from Cuti Romero to Son Heung-Min just inside the Spurs half. As he crossed the halfway line, Sonny looked to be closed in by three Brighton defenders, but with a quick burst of pace, he split the two defenders in front of him with a slick dribble to push into the top of the box. From there he was met by a fourth Brighton defender (Lewis Dunk), who Sonny slid around. Adam Webster thought he was able to get a foot in on Son, but the attempted tackle forced the ball to bounce of the attacking players’ shin, past the Brighton keeper creeping up to cut the space, and onto the foot of the sliding Harry Kane who scored his easiest goal of the season to restore Spurs’ two goal lead.
In his return from injury, I thought we were treated to moments of the Sonny that we all know and love. Was it his best game in a Spurs shirt? No. Were there instances where he could have been more clinical in his finishing? Sure. We have to remember that this was his first game in exactly one month. He was bound to be a little rusty, he was going to make a few mistakes. Here is the thing. As Spurs fans, we love Sonny. His passion, his love for the badge, his talent; all these make him an easy player for us fans to latch onto. In a lot of ways, he is the reason that made me fall in love with the club with a two-goal performance at Middlesbrough back in 2016. I say these things to set up this take: Sonny is the most important player in Spurs attack.
Yes, Harry Kane has poured in goals and is out and out the best pure striker in football, but our attack is at its best with Son Heung-Min in the lineup. Think back to how many times he has kept us afloat when Harry Kane’s chocolate ankles have been unwrapped. Think about how desperately we have missed his pace to drive the ball up the pitch. When we think of 2018-19, we all remember that glorious night in Amsterdam followed by that crushing defeat due to Sissoko’s armpit ball. People forget how Son kept us running throughout that season with huge performances against West Ham and Arsenal in the League Cup; Watford, Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Leicester City, and Chelsea in the Premier League; and who could forget how massive he was for us in the knockout stages at home against Borussia Dortmund and across both legs of the quarterfinals against Manchester City. There is a reason why he won Spurs Player of the Year for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. There is a reason he has been named the Asian Footballer of the Year every year since 2017. Call it a hot take, call it whatever you want, Son Heung-Min is the one player that has the greatest impact on the success of this football club.
Rant over. Back to Spurs v Brighton.
After Kane’s brace made it 3-1, we saw Spurs make all five of their subs on the evening. The first one came in the 68th minute as Lucas Moura, who played a fine game and brought his typical energy, gave way to January signing Dejan Kulusevski. Kulu was joined in the 69th minute by Steven Bergwijn who came on for Son Heung-Min. In the 77th minute, Spurs made a double switch to give the defense fresh legs as they brought on Joe Rodon and Rodrigo Bentancur for Cuti Romero and Harry Winks, respectively. This was the kind of substitution that signaled Conte wanted to freshen up the defense and see the squad through to the 6th round. The final substitution of the night came in the form of Matt Doherty who came on in the 87th minute for Emerson Royal.
Seeing the recent signings on the pitch gave us a nice glimpse of what Kulu and Bentancur could bring to the table. While much has been said about Kulu’s lack of pace, what I did see from the Juventus loanee was a nice spark and bits of creativity. His progression was good and he added some nice passing. You got the sense that Kulu brings a slightly different skill set to our attacking players. His technical ability along with his size could prove to be a real asset to this team. Bentancur’s cameo showed a strong defensive midfield presence and a tremendous work rate. In thirteen minutes, he won four duels and displayed some silky footwork. I believe both of the additions from Juventus have potential to be nice additions to this roster. At the beginning of January, we were crying out for depth in the squad. While I believe that are additions that still need to be made, Kulu and Bentancur are both solid additions to the squad.
When talking about the other subs, Matt Doherty’s quick cameo was just that, quick. It was good to see Joe Rodon back in the squad. I think that Rodon is someone who has not gotten quite a fair shake at Spurs (although he has not always grabbed the bull by the horns in the few starts he has been given). This thirteen minute appearance was nothing mind blowing, but he was solid. That brings me to one Steven Bergwijn…
All things considered, Stevie B was fine. He completed five of seven passes (including one key pass), had one shot, covered a lot of ground, and saw the game out for Spurs. There was that chance in the 83rd minute. Kulu finds him in space just inside the box and Stevie B fires a shot. The only problem is that the shot landed in Moussa Sissoko territory. After the game, I saw countless posts of “Levy got too cheap and did not sell Stevie B,” “why didn’t we sell him to Ajax,” “he’s just a scrub.” Strap in, I am about to bring the heat.
On the whole, Steven Begwijn played fine. Serviceable but not spectacular. I know that we signed him from PSV to score and create, which he has had multiple droughts. My issue with the narrative of Steven Bergwijn is not the player, it is the people with bipolar opinions of the player. At the beginning of January, everyone was ready to sell him on and cut their loses when rumors swirled about Ajax’s interest in him. Then, one night in Leicester changed everyone’s tune. Two goals to complete an improbable stoppage time win saw everyone have a change of heart and demand we keep him. SIDE NOTE, you can find Podspur’s recap of that night on here as well as read Jeremy Morehouse’s excellent piece about “The Shove Seen ‘Round the World” here. Now, not even three weeks later, those same people begging Levy to keep him are complaining that we should have let him go to Ajax.
This is my frustration with the fans “support” of one Steven Bergwijn. I do not believe fans have given him the appropriate shake he deserves. Stevie B has always played with heart and effort in his time in North London. He has scored some incredible goals for the club, and he has missed some head scratchers. We as a fan base have to stop being so flippy-floppy with our support of players. It creates a toxic environment that no one wants to be around. Last season, Stevie B saw the worst of this after he had a lack luster performance against Liverpool. This lead to a slew of hateful messages and racists comments at his expense and sent him into an obvious tail spin. This toxicity makes me absolutely sick. We have to remember that while these are millionaire athletes that get paid to play a game for a living, but most importantly, they are humans. They have their good days at the office, they have their bad days at the office. I would love to see some of these flip flops have a bad day at work and then hear about it from millions of people across social media, television, newsprint, etc. We have to stop treating these players like garbage and start remembering that they are human.
Overall, I thought it was a great team performance. We looked like peak-Pochettino Tottenham. High energy, attacking, solid at the back. If Spurs have dreams to lift silverware and qualify for the Champions League, this is the style we need to play. Keep the pressure on, force your opponent to make mistakes, hit them on the counter. I am so excited to see this club take the next step forward under Antonio Conte.
My Man of the Match for this game is Harry Kane. No surprise there. Kane looks like he is hungry and ready to score goals. With a healthy Son in the lineup and solid midfield play, I think he is about to take off. My two honorable mentions for this game do not go to one player in particular, but to the back three of Davies, Sanchez, and Romero and the midfield duo of Winks and PEH. Both groups were solid, alert, and made big plays when they needed. This is the type of solid performance we will need from these groups to reach the heights we know we are capable of.
Looking ahead, Spurs have a pair of Premier League matches to round out the week. On Wednesday (2/9), Spurs play host to Southampton who are fresh off an extra time win over Championship side, Coventry City. The Saints currently sit 12th in the league table with 25 points through 22 games played. In the reverse fixture with Southampton, Spurs had three goals disallowed which saw them split the points with the Saints on the road. To close out the week, Spurs will stay at N17 for a match-up on Sunday (2/13) with Wolves who currently sit right behind Tottenham in 8th place with 34 points through 21 games. Wolves did not share the same fate as Spurs and Southampton in the 5th round of the FA Cup as they fell 1-0 to a Norwich side fighting to fend off relegation. Spurs won the reverse fixture on matchday two behind an early penalty converted by Dele Alli. Should Spurs win both matches this weekend, it is possible the team could move into the top four with a little help. It is also important to note, Spurs still have three games that have yet to be rescheduled.
On Sunday, Spurs learned their FA Cup 6th round fate as they were drawn away to Championship side Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough pulled one of the big shocks of the fifth round by knocking off Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United on penalties at Old Trafford. This match is currently scheduled for Wednesday, March 2nd at 7:45 London time (2:45 EST/1:45 CST). The last time Spurs traveled to Middlesbrough was in the third round of the 2019-20 FA Cup where a 61st minute equalizer from Lucas Moura forced a replay where Spurs were able to emerge victorious with a 2-1 victory. The rest of the 6th round will see the following matchups: Chelsea away to Luton Town, Stoke City away to Crystal Palace, Manchester City away to Peterborough United, Norwich away to Liverpool, West Ham away to Southampton, Huddersfield Town away to Nottingham Forest, and Boreham Wood away to Everton.
In conclusion, this was a great team win to officially kickoff the “second half” of the season. Today gave us a great look at what a (mostly) healthy Antonio Conte led Spurs team could bring to the table, and I am super excited to see what this group can accomplish to close out the 2021-22 season. Getting a win over another Premier League side in any competition is always a good thing. Getting a win over another Premier League side in any competition AND looking good in the process is a great thing. UP THE SPURS!!!
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