Spurs pretensions of a top four finish feel a bit hollow after a well-organised Newcastle team took advantage of their defensive generosity.
There are few more contradictory teams in the current Premier League than Spurs. They seem capable of absolute brilliance and extraordinary incompetence in the space of just a few minutes, and when watching them it often feels as though there is no way of telling what they might serve up from one passage of play to the next. The first half hour of their game against Newcastle United was a case in point. They dominated attacking play and created a handful of decent chances throughout the early stages, but all it took was a long ball, a moment of – increasingly familiar – lackadaiscial play from Hugo Lloris, and all that good work felt undone.
Lloris is the Spurs club captain and a highly experienced goalkeeper, a World Cup and Nations League winner with almost 140 appearances for France under his belt. But these mistakes are starting to feel too regular. The opening goal of the game came from out of nowhere, a long ball through the middle from Fabian Schar which the goalkeeper should have been able to clear with comfort, but instead Lloris mis-controlled, ran into Callum Wilson and fell, allowing Wilson to roll the ball into the empty goal. A substantial VAR check – Offside! Handball! Foul! Something!- was never going to alter the referee’s initial decision.
The mood inside The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium darkened almost immediately. The players started to seem to need an extra touch to get the ball under control, while passes started to run astray. Newcastle, tails lifted by their moment of good fortune, were more incisive with their tackling and started to dictate play in the middle of the pitch. This has been an ongoing issue for Spurs for some time, now. They can go for long periods with their central midfield looking at best like a creativity desert and at worst non-existent.
Four minutes from half-time, the cost of unnecessarily inflating the confidence of the opposition became even more clear. Newcastle were pressing higher, a completely understandable tactical formation against a team so capable of conceding as a result of their own panickiness, and when Sean Longstaff nicked the ball from Ryan Sessegnon after Lloris’s chipped ball didn’t quite reach its intended target, he fed the ball to Miguel Almiron, who ghosted past Clement Lenglet before lifting the ball over Lloris to double Newcastle’s lead. With storm clouds both literal and metaphorical swelling over the stadium as the players left the pitch to a cacophony of boos for the half-time break, the scent of pathetic fallacy hung heavy in the air.
Of course, while you have Harry Kane in your team, you have a chance. Kane remains a player who borders on being a get out of jail free card for Spurs, and eleven minutes into the second half he bundled the ball over the line from a corner to shift the mood back in a more positive direction, albeit after another lengthy, joy-extinguishing VAR intervention. The booing that accompanied the half-time whistle was temporarily forgotten. The balance of play briefly started to swing back in the home team’s favour.
Against Everton in their previous home match, with it already clear that his tacticial positioning was playing straight into Frank Lampard’s hand, Antonio Conte withdrew Richarlison, shifted their formation, and within five minutes were in the lead. With what felt like the wind in their sails, Conte introduced Ivan Perisic and then Lucas Moura, but on this occasion the shift didn’t really have the positive effect that he’d intended. Newcastle continued to press, squeezing space all over the pitch. Matches usually loosen up in their closing stages as tiredness and nerves start to creep in, but the visitors held their shape and kept their energy levels up. Spurs ran out of steam well before the final whistle.
In short, that’s where Spurs and Newcastle are at the moment. Newcastle looked the better motivated of the two teams, had the better system, and looked more secure and confident on the ball. It never felt as though they were going to make the sort of wholly avoidable mistakes that cost the home side so dearly in the first half. When there was a momentary lapse in defensive concentration in the closing minutes, Eric Dier completed the double-whammy of heading wide from an offside position.
But Newcastle are up to fourth place and have to be considered contenders for a Champions League place, and if that feels like a bit of a stretch, well, other European football is available. And this may turn out to be a hugely important result for the team, psychologically. Against Liverpool they lost to a goal scored eight minutes into stoppage-time. Against Manchester United they played out a goalless draw that they might have won. Now they have a first win against a ‘big six’ team this season, even if that particular ‘big six’ team occasionally – perhaps often – doesn’t play much like one.
There’s little doubt that this has been a bad week for Spurs. Losing away to a Manchester United team that is really coalescing positively under Erik ten Hag was one thing, but being completely outplayed was something else altogether. And following that up with a home defeat littered with daft mistakes against a team that they are in direct competition with at the end of the season only compounds the feeling that something Antonio Conte’s squad is malfunctioning, although none of this should distract from the fact that, for all Spurs’ defensive tomfoolery, Newcastle deserved the win.
So where does Conte go from here? He is surely aware that, while the league table ‘never lies’ in many senses, Spurs’ ongoing third-placed position in the Premier League is surely pushing against the boundaries of being credible. Maybe it’s simply the case that their players aren’t good enough to play he wants them to play with the consistency that is required at the top end of the Premier League, and if that’s the case then the club probably needs to give considerable thought to how they resolve this. Do they dip back into the transfer market in January? Would that even be wise, with Conte’s contract position beyond next summer still not decided?
In the modern game consistency is more important than ever, and at the heart of this contradictory Spurs team is the fact that they can make mistakes that would embarrass Sunday league players. They simply cannot continue to hold the ambitions that they do while the team remains so capable of anything like this, and with this defeat perhaps all concerned will see that the last few days have been coming for a while. With such competition near the top of the Premier League, mistakes like those made by Hugo Lloris this season and performances like those against both Manchester United and Newcastle United will be punished. As the season reaches its middle third, Spurs look like they’re regressing rather than kicking on.