Press and push on
Tottenham, two successive home league defeats with no goals scored, erratic. Southampton, four straight wins, confident. Mauricio Pochettino versus Ronald Koeman. One team struggling to regain their swagger and momentum following another season of discontent, the other surprising everyone with a bright start after a dismantlement in the summer transfer window.
Pochettino has inherited a problem and is attempting to fix it by replicating his moderate success when coach at Southampton. The pre-season hope was that having the better pool of players at White Hart Lane would allow his style to work with less quirks that often stagnated his progress at St Marys. It's early days for sure but he's yet to impose his philosophy with consistency.
That philosophy re-introduced itself in a 1-0 win. Hopefully it's not another cameo. Pressure on keeps the pressure off.
We got three points and a performance that paid respect to Pochettino's work ethic. There was constant pressing from our players on the Southampton midfield, stifling their attempts at owning possession, giving them little time on the ball. We did so with a healthy tempo and some much needed injection of urgency. We defended by attacking them when they had the ball and moved it quickly when it was at our feet.
In the context of form (rather than the expectations we seem to stretch out from one season to the next) this was a solid display against a team that probably fancied their chances. For the second successive game (following on from the 1-1 at Arsenal), Pochettino showed guile and intelligence with his tactics. More importantly, the players responded after the debacles against Liverpool and WBA.
Okay, so the style part of the philosophy needs tweaking. We know this already. On Sunday the players looked up for it from the start. Southampton did manage to claw their way back in, stalling the zest from our quick start. Thankfully, rather than allow them to take the initiative we won it back and finally broke the deadlock after a smart goal with Nacer Chadli assisting Christian Eriksen who made up for an earlier missed opportunity with a clinical finish.
Southampton had their moments, including a Sadio Mané early effort that Naughton blocked and a sitter late in the game. Hugo Lloris was alert when Victor Wanyama's shot magnified the messy defending in the build up (Kaboul guilty of a poor clearance). Sure, we had some luck but for the most part we deserved the points.
As the system and how we transition with and without the ball evolves, the individuals will begin to show more of their personality traits. Erik Lamela will perhaps be far more decisive with ball at feet and team-mates waiting for a killer pass, although there's no argument that he has at the very least found himself in a position to assist several times this season.
Eriksen needs to be more influential (he played centrally with Chadli out to the left) much like Sunday, proving when he does he can find himself attacking the space ahead of him, showing for the ball so much more. If there's space to run into he'll flourish. Against Soton, he was able to assist the forward play and got himself into shooting positions and scored.
All three players like to roam and until they understand and appreciate each others movement, there's going to be congestion and misunderstandings. Chadli struck the post and was desperately unlucky not to score again (but assisted Eriksen's goal with a lovely lay-off).
All of this points towards progress, so these are positives even if we remain expectant of so much more.
We also need to use the width far more than we do. The problems inherited are still evident and no doubt we'll have to dig deep plenty more times before opposing teams are struggling to dig themselves out of a hole we've pushed them in.
We are still lacking finesse and our maligned final third play is still begging for a concentrated spark and fluidity. We needed to prove to ourselves - the players to their coach - that they can take what they do in training and work to it with end product out where it matters. We need this to be the template for all games. That missing quality, if we find it, will make the difference between winning 1-0 or winning 3-0. That's against non-Top 5 clubs. They are altogether a different challenge that might prove more long term to combat.
Other footnotes from the game:
Bertrand's tackle on Naughton. Naughty. The ref not consistent when showing a card, preferring to randomly dish out yellows when other incidents (Rose) warranted them but went unpunished. Naughton could be out for 3 months. Gutted for him and for us. That's about the time we'll have to wait for Yedlin's arrival. In the mean time, Dier looks set to be a busy boy.
Ryan Mason, composed and with vision. Tidy player. Perhaps this seasons breakthrough kid and under Pochettino's guidance we might see far better management than we got with Tim Sherwood's baptism of fire with Bentaleb.
Kaboul, last man? Yellow card deserved? Funny thing about a shoulder charge is that the bigger man is always likely to be the one bouncing the opposing player to the ground.
Adebayor. From one supporter to the next nobody can quite decide how well he performs. I saw plenty of running and willingness to be involved. He was definitely involved in the build up to the goal. The expectancy with him is high so even if he performs decently, he's perceived as not performing at all. It's true though, he can do so much more.
Southampton's reluctance to finish their chances is a remainder that we have to be so much better in defence.
Hugo Lloris proving that it's quite alright to have a world class player as a goalkeeper and it isn't a shame or a waste that we no longer have one in an outfield position because, brace yourselves, a keeper is actually quite important. You know, cause he can handle the ball and stuff.
The football still isn't exhilarating. That might come when the system ticks and the players feel right at home with it. The issues remain with the lack of leaders across the spine of the team and the non-existence of true blistering pace on the flanks + a creative central midfielder.
Shame we've got ourselves another international break to puncture the proper football that actually matters.
It's going to be a while before we lose our 'work in progress' tag but we're sat above several teams that are meant to be in far better shape, so we're not doing badly considering the turmoil and general lack of certifiable management and direction from the board. Or maybe we're just doing what we always do. Picking up the pieces and moving on to the next dramatic chapter.