Tottenham are through to the last 16, but does it have to be this hard? | Barney Ronay

Champions League win in Marseille raises questions about Spurs’ style – but there is a chance to build something

Never really in doubt was it? Except, of course, for all those moments in the opening 45 minutes when it looked wholly and entirely in doubt, as Tottenham produced a mind‑numbingly cautious first half in Marseille but still had enough drive to secure what felt by the end like a pointlessly painful victory.

Three points put them top of Group D, in the hat for whatever might happen in that strange, distant place known as the second half of the season. And whatever the manner of victory, this is a significant moment.

Failing to make it through this group would have been a devastating blow: financially, but also in terms of heft and lustre. For Antonio Conte there is the issue of basic relevance, of still being a player in this thing. Spurs are third in the league and into the knockout stages. Their passage here was tricky, with key players missing and Conte glowering on from the stands.

This is tangible progress. Perhaps the sight of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, in agony, drained, beside himself after slotting a spectacular last-second winning goal might even offer a note of ignition to the season.

Is it enough though? Spurs are also the 10th richest football club in the world. And this victory will raise questions too, mainly some basic notions of style and intent, about how exactly Spurs want to do this, what they want their football to feel like.

Conte is a managerial paradox in his own right. Here is a charismatic, vibrant, glitzy presence, whose teams exist in a fiercely controlled state of caution; whose own wild touchline gymnastics are like a mocking counter-commentary on the rigidly drilled nature of his football.

How exactly does this act of vanity work? At the very least, does it have to be this hard? The Stade Vélodrome is a cauldron-ish place, all son et lumière and theatrical waves of noise. But Marseille are not an intimidating team, fifth in Ligue 1 right now and bottom of Group B at start of play.

Son Heung-min is helped off the pitch in a first half where Spurs failed to utilise the striker.
Son Heung-min is helped off the pitch in a first half where Spurs failed to utilise the striker. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

This was a strikingly even group on matchday six, in part because it also wasn’t a very good group. None of these teams are actual champions. Spurs are the only one currently in the top three of their domestic league.

So this was a night for being active from the start, for forcing the moment. Tottenham, well, Tottenham sat deep in their flat back five, three midfielders in front. This is the way of this team. They want to play less football, not more, to win by counterthrust, by playing just enough football and no more. Is this really how this thing works now?

Conte did do something unusual, starting with inverted wing‑backs, Ryan Sessegnon on the right, Ivan Perisic on the left. The net effect was to amplify the threat outside, most notably on Sessegnon’s side. And Spurs’ intentions seemed obvious enough in a dreadful first half. Make the game boring. Take the football out of this. A foul, a stoppage, dead ends, stubbed toes. This is all good. Their greatest comfort at that stage was the bluntness of Marseille’s final pass.

Spurs lost Son Heung-min, shaken after a violent aerial challenge, although he had at that point completed one pass in 28 minutes on the pitch. And once again they managed the odd trick of being cautious, deep, double-banked, but also oddly porous and brittle. Is this a thing worth sharing with Europe’s elite teams? Where does it hope to go? Finally Marseille scored. Chancel Mbemba’s header was a lovely thing.

Spurs’ dithering at the corner less so.

And through this there was a familiar sadness about watching Harry Kane in this team. He roams across those spaces, looks for stray balls. It’s just a kind of scavenging existence, living off your wits, pushing that trolley across an empty landscape. Early on Son picked up the ball, ran forward, saw only Kane surrounded by white shirts, then just turned and ran back – towards what exactly? – before finding himself surrounded.

But Tottenham changed, abruptly, as the second half started. The wing‑backs had switched to their stronger sides. The midfield played with more aggression. Spurs were kind-of transformed. That is, they looked like a football team here to show something of themselves. There was even something agreeable in Clément Lenglet scoring the equaliser, excellent on the night, delighted with his moment and, let’s face it, a quiz question in the making in years to come. Spurs’ past nine goals have all come in the second half. This feels like an oversight, or a misreading of the rules.

The first half also exists. It is allowed.

From there the second half was gripping, but gripping in a way that shouldn’t have been required. When Spurs passed the ball and showed attacking ambition it was clear Marseille were there for the taking.

Rodrigo Bentancur was classy and assertive, a midfielder too good to be asked simply to sit. Højbjerg won it at the death with a wonderful finish. A year into the age of Antonio, there is a chance here to build something.

Contributor

Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tottenham must show their nasty side on date with destiny in Marseille
Spurs need to park the anger over VAR and impose themselves from the off again to continue their Champions League journey

David Hytner in Marseille

31, Oct, 2022 @8:40 PM

Article image
‘We showed personality’: Lloris hails Spurs’ strength after win in Marseille
Hugo Lloris, Spurs’ captain, said: ‘It was probably more difficult for the manager in the stands,’ while Son Heung-min will be assessed after a clash of heads

David Hytner at the Stade Vélodrome

01, Nov, 2022 @11:51 PM

Article image
Lenglet and Højbjerg complete Spurs comeback at Marseille to win group
Clément Lenglet and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg completed a second-half turnaround in Tottenham’s 2-1 victory in Marseille to finish top of their Champions League group

David Hytner at the Stade Vélodrome

01, Nov, 2022 @10:23 PM

Article image
Midfield can give Liverpool edge over Tottenham in final reckoning | Eni Aluko
The relentless pressure to win the ball high up the pitch gives Liverpool’s engine room a different kind of creativity from Tottenham that may be decisive in the Champions League final

Eni Aluko

30, May, 2019 @8:44 PM

Article image
Tottenham fans bask in afterglow of a defiantly un-’Spursy’ denouement | Sid Lowe
Tottenham’s supporters had to contemplate failure for most of the match in Barcelona until Lucas Moura turned the evening on its head

Sid Lowe at Camp Nou

12, Dec, 2018 @12:40 AM

Article image
Rangers’ only comfort comes from history in unequal ‘Battle of Britain’ | Ewan Murray
Thirty years after they beat Leeds, Rangers are now the biggest fish in a tiny pond and were left chasing shadows against Liverpool

Ewan Murray at Anfield

04, Oct, 2022 @9:15 PM

Article image
Richarlison’s first Tottenham goals punish Marseille for Mbemba’s red card
Richarlison scored twice to give Tottenham a 2-0 victory on their return to the Champions League against a Marseille side that had Chancel Mbemba sent off

David Hytner at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

07, Sep, 2022 @9:03 PM

Article image
Tottenham finally reach agreement over Georges-Kévin Nkoudou transfer
The French striker is close to an €11m move to White Hart Lane despite talks between Spurs and Marseille appearing to have broken down last month

Ed Aarons

20, Aug, 2016 @10:05 AM

Article image
Tottenham can learn from last season’s Champions League, says Pochettino
Mauricio Pochettino said Tottenham know what the Champions League demands of them because of the painful experience in the 2016-2017 campaign and feels ‘the game against Borussia Dortmund is like a final’

David Hytner

12, Sep, 2017 @5:56 PM

Article image
Mauricio Pochettino praises Tottenham character in Juventus comeback
Mauricio Pochettino was delighted with Tottenham’s recovery against Juventus that gave them a 2-2 draw in Turin and said: ‘We dominated possession and forced them deeper’

David Hytner at the Allianz Stadium

13, Feb, 2018 @11:55 PM