It may not be enough to worry Manchester City, but this laboured 2-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion was exactly what Tottenham Hotspur needed at Wembley tonight. This was a performance low on quality, chances and fluency, but then that is nothing new for Spurs at home this season. Too many times this year they have failed to win games like this, but tonight they did enough.
These three points were enough to move Spurs back into fourth, ahead of Liverpool and Burnley on goal difference. Their patchy league form means that they fell away from the title race some time ago but top four is the priority now, with little margin for error. For that they need to start grinding out wins.
Yes, they cannot play like this at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday, but that will be a very different game. City will throw everything they have at Spurs. Here Brighton kept almost everything back.
If the 5-1 demolition of Stoke City on Saturday felt like a new start, this was back to the old routine for a Wembley home game. Spurs tried to get through a deep packed defence but found it very difficult.
They created almost nothing from open play all night, and their two goals, one at the end of each half, owed something to fortune. Serge Aurier’s opener was a fluke, a cross that accidentally flew in. Heung Min Son’s second, a header from a free-kick, took a big deflection. In open play Spurs created almost nothing.
The first 40 minutes of the first half were a frustratingly typical pattern. Teams know that when they come here they can defend deep and narrow to try to force Tottenham down the sides. It works too: West Bromwich Albion, Swansea City and Burnley have all escaped here with a point by doing exactly that.
So Hughton, who does not need an invitation to defend, did the same, even resting Glenn Murray and Pascal Gross to keep eager defensive legs on the pitch. They were happy to leave Tomer Hemed stranded up front with everyone else in and around their own penalty area.
The result was plenty of Spurs possession but almost no, as Tottenham kept running head-down into a wall of yellow shirts. Erik Lamela, making his first Spurs start since October 2016, in place of Dele Alli, snatched at their only real first-half chance and it flew over the bar.
Sometimes with Spurs a goal feels inevitable but here it did not. It arrived out of nowhere but the rainy sky. Aurier had the ball wide on the right, shuffled into space, and just as Jose Izquierdo clattered him, he got off a cross. The ball looped over everyone’s heads, including Mat Ryan’s, into the only unprotected part of the goal, the far top corner. It was just what Spurs needed: an unplanned unpreventable fluke.
Being 1-0 down meant that Brighton could not approach the second half in exactly the same way. They had to get men forward to support Hemed, and one clever break ended with the Israeli striker having a shot saved from the edge of the box, another with Shane Duffy heading straight at Hugo Lloris from an Ezequiel Schelotto cross.
Tottenham needed to be switched on but when Aurier challenged Davy Propper on the edge of the box the ball squirted back through to Hemed, who had the time and space to score, but rushed a shot at Lloris instead.
That was a warning for Spurs, who had let the game drift. Pochettino threw on Mousa Dembele and then Dele Alli, hoping his team would recover their impetus and not slip to yet another infuriating home draw against a side they should be putting away. He urged on the home crowd to rekindle an atmosphere that had never got going.
But it worked, just. Spurs re-established control, Kane hit the post and eventually, three minutes from the end, the second goal came. Eriksen had a free-kick from wide on the right, which he drilled into the near post, where Son got down to head the ball. It took a deflection off Davy Propper and flew into the net, Son’s fourth in four. Not brilliant, and not pretty, but exactly what Spurs needed.
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