Spurs survived a tricky trip to Nottingham with a 2-0 win, but despite two goals from Harry Kane, they still looked a little flat.
Winning ugly is important. Very few teams in the history of professional football have won much with beauty alone, and the ability to grind out a result on a bad day at the office can be very valuable indeed. At The City Ground against Spurs, Nottingham Forest put up an excellent fight and looked like the better team for long spells, but Spurs have the experience and nous and ended up with all three points, but also with Antonio Conte having one or questions likely playing on his mind by the end of the game.
It took five minutes for one of this year’s surprise hits to feed one of its longer-standing theats to give Spurs the lead. Dejan Kulusevski was given a surprising amount of space in the centre of midfield and threaded a perfectly weighted pass for Harry Kane to place a low shot across a likely unsighted Dean Henderson and in.
Kulusevski’s intelligence – he often seems to have this moment of forethought beyond whomever is marking him at any given moment – is far too great to be given that much time and space in which to cogitate. Less than ten minutes later Kane was bearing down on goal again, only for a perfectly-timed tackle from Joe Worrall to nick the ball from under him at the last minute.
None of this means that Forest were absent without leave throughout the opening stages. They were energetic when moving into attacking positions, creative with their passing, and just lacked the final ball that only really comes with the experience of playing together regularly, and over a period of time.
But then again, you may only have to achieve that pass once or twice in a game to win it, and occasionally Forest came close to finding it. Lewis O’Brien brought a mildly uncomfortable save from Hugo Lloris, and the Spurs defence looked more than a little exerted from a succession of balls into the penalty area which didn’t quite come to anything.
Forest’s press was, just as Chelsea’s had been a couple of weeks earlier, successfully penning Spurs back, but Chelsea only emerged from that game with a point because Spurs scored twice regardless, and when they did get a foot on the ball in this game, they found a lot of space to move into in the middle third of the pitch, with their opponents having committed a lot of players forward.
Son Heung-min, still awaiting his first goal of the season, curled narrowly over at the end of one break. Kane shot a foot wide at the end of another. Ivan Perisic headed the ball as cool as you like for Lloris the other end, though the goalkeeper had to dive to prevent what would have been a hilarious own goal.
Ironically, both teams looked at their best on the break. On half an hour, Forest again looked like a team that has been playing together for a very long time, when Morgan Gibbs-White broke on the right and put a low, curling cross-cum-shot across the face of goal which Lloris had to scramble to get a hand to. Shortly before half-time, another lovely passage of interplay ended in Gibbs-White curling narrowly over.
Half-time brought no changes, but the slightly strange feeling that the manager of the losing side might be happier with his team’s performance than the manager of the team in the lead. Spurs looked too dependent upon the break, defended too deep, and their possession was too sloppy. Forest, meanwhile, went into the break looking as though if they could score one, they might score a hatful.
And seven minutes into the second half came the VAR controversy of the afternoon. A hanging cross from Perisic was met by Steve Cook and Harry Kane at the same time, but the problem with this was it was Cook’s arm that deflected the ball away.
For a moment, it looked as though the penalty might not be awarded for a push by Kane. It was. Then it became about whether Cook might be sent off for the handball. He wasn’t. And then the whole incident became somewhat moot anyway, when Henderson saved Kane’s kick, his second penalty save of the season already.
The save almost lifted the roof off The City Ground, and within minutes Neco Williams had a shot deflected wide. The energy from a raucous crowd can visibly lift a team at both ends of the pitch. When Son sprang the offside trap on the hour, his low ball across the six-yard area was met by two Forest defenders stretching every sinew to clear the ball to safety.
Spurs did weather Nottingham’s wall of sound and created a couple of chances of their own, with Kulusevski looking a particular menace on the right when they broke. But Son missed another chance, Perisic fired wildly over and Kulusevski had a shot smothered by Henderson. There’s little point depending on that break if you’re not going to take the chances when they do fall.
And when Richarlison was introduced, there followed a harsh reminder for a brave Forest team on the inequities of the Premier League. Bringing on a £60m substitute is a luxury that not many clubs have, and within minutes the Brazilian forward had shown both sides of his coin, first delivering a delicious curling cross with the outside of his foot to set up a game-killing second goal for Kane, and then for a little bit of chicanery (of the shithousery persuasion), which led to a hefty challenge and a yellow card for Brennan Johnson.
Nottingham Forest have been decent so far this season, and while they couldn’t take anything from this game they shown enough to suggest that relegation shouldn’t play too heavily on their minds this season. Their issue seems to be that final ball. They only had one shot on target all game from from sixteen taken in total, which suggests that their actual attempts on goal were really speculative rather than anything else.
But that will come, and they clearly have enough about them to make that final tweak. Indeed, there is the seed of a potentially very exciting team here. Morgan Gibbs-White and Brennan Johsnon linked up like they’ve played togther for years. Forest’s attacking options have a lot of energy and they have a lot of skill. Theys just need those final touches to be refined, but there’s nothing to suggest that this can’t be done.
Winning when you’re not playing at your best is a definite asset to have, but it may be concerning to Antonio Conte that Spurs have had a slightly flat feel to them for each of their last three Premier League matches, even if they did take seven points from these games.
They could have had this game comfortably won earlier had they taken their chances, but as things ended up it took them until the last ten minutes to wrap up the points, and it all felt a little flat again. It does feel as though they could do with a comfortable win in the league, because while it is undoubtedly handy asset to have, winning ugly is seldom enough on its own any more.