Premier League Review: Tottenham Hotspur’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
At the very top end of professional football, there is no such thing as a “bad” player. The days of the chain-smoking, heavy drinking footballer with a paunch and a bookmaker’s pen behind his ear have probably gone (although the latter of these character traits has likely only moved on to mobile phone apps), and when we talk of the attributes of players we probably focus too much on the physical and not enough on the psychological. This, we might well argue, is why Tottenham Hotspur’s apparent Wembley hex is important. Prior to the Premier League’s debut the national stadium yesterday afternoon, Sky Sports went into considerable detail about the efforts that Spurs had made to make Wembley Stadium feel like home this season. The cockerel logo has been splashed all over the stadium, along with quotations and mottoes associated with the club.Even the bronze bust of Sir Alf Ramsey, Sky’s reporter helpfully pointed out, concerns a man who spent the best years of his playing career at White Hart Lane.
For all of the club’s efforts to make Wembley feel like like home, however, it’s difficult not to take into consideration what might have been going on in the heads of both Victor Wanyama and Hugo Lloris with two minutes to play of yesterday’s match against Chelsea. How much unnecessary fluster might have been going on in either or both of their heads when Wanyama carelessly lost possession to death by dangerous driving’s Marco Alonso or when Lloris allowed Alonso’s relatively tame shot to pass through him to grant Chelsea all three points from the match? Professional footballers are human beings and human beings make mistakes, but elite athletes have fewer excuses for this sort of thing than the rest of us, and two players getting caught in a muddle in such quick succession should at least give Mauricio Pochettino pause for thought as he surveys the wreckage of thirty seconds that lived down to the lowest pre-match expectations of Spurs supporters.
Few would have had too many complaints had Spurs gone down to Alonso’s first significant contribution to the game, a glorious twenty-five yard free-kick so beautifully positioned that it swung over a correctly set up defensive wall before dipping perfectly under the crossbar to give Chelsea the lead. Spurs reacted reasonably positively to the goal and might even have gone in level at half-time had Harry Kane’s low, angled shot been placed just an inch or two further to the left than it was. As it was, the ball thudded out off the inside of the post and Chelsea led at half-time. To describe Spurs as “unlucky” yesterday afternoon would, however, be wide of the mark. Chelsea hit the post themselves in the second half, and Tottenham’s equalising goal, which came with seven minutes left to play, came courtesy of the head Michy Batshuayi rather than any of their own players. Yesterday’s result not “unlucky.” Yesterday’s result was slipping on a banana skin whilst carrying a sword and subsequently falling upon it.
Still, at least Spurs supporters had early season Arsenal to fall back on as a consolation prize. So predictable was Arsenal losing away at Stoke City in their first away league match of the season that it would be unsurprising to see a plane flying over The Emirates Stadium this season demanding that Gunnersaurus be replaced as the club’s mascot by Punxsutawney Phil. Arsenal, the seventh wealthiest football club on the planet (according to the 2017 Deloitte report), should be able to go to Stoke on a warm Saturday evening and pick up three points. The narrative that has developed surrounding this fixture has an element of urban legend about it – Stoke had failed to win any of their their last five Premier League matches against Arsenal prior to Saturday evening’s schadenfreudefest – but it is more than tempting to consider the possibility that the lack of psychological edge that has often been considered a potential shortcoming of more recent vintages of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal teams could have been a significant factor in this latest aberration. Wenger himself didn’t see it that way, of course. In his post-match press conference, Granit Xhaka was to blame for the “stupid mistake” that led to Jesé Rodríguez’s winning goal and the match officials were to blame for Alexandre Lacazette’s disallowed goal with a little under twenty minutes of the match left to play. Plus ca change, Arsene. Plus ca change.
Of course, talk of fragile psychology seems somewhat out of place when talking about either Jose Mourinho or Manchester United. In the first match of the weekend, United strolled to a comfortable four-nil win at Swansea City. Now, there are two sides to every story, of course. Swansea folded with ten minutes to play and United’s three goals in five minutes gave the final scoreline a degree of comfort that the previous eighty minutes of football probably hadn’t warranted, and it’s difficult to believe that they will face considerably weaker opposition than a Swansea team shorn of the departed Gylfi Sigurdsson and the injured Fernando Llorente, but this was a second convincing win of the season and United, for what it’s worth after just two matches, head the table with Romelu Lukaku having scored his third United goal while Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial also scored for the second successive game – as strong a start as Mourinho and United’s supporters could have hoped for.
They are joined at the top of the table by two somewhat surprising faces. Huddersfield Town, predicted by all and sundry to plummet immediately back from whence they came, made it two wins out of two with a home win against Newcastle United on Sunday lunchtime in a match most notable for the ease with which they were able to hold onto their lead after Aaron Mooy scored with a delightful curling shot for the Terriers five minutes into the second half. There are a few days of transfer window left for Rafael Benitez to try and invest in some goals for his team. On Sunday’s evidence, his toothless attacking options could do with a little plumpening. Huddersfield, meanwhile, were attractive to watch and well-organised to play against. Huddersfield supporters may have more to look forward to this season than the media would have led them to believe during the pre-season. The other club to have taken two from two is West Bromwich Albion, whose one-nil win at Burnley hinted at the likelihood of the mid-table and down places in this year’s Premier League being as much of a muchness as they were last season. Hal Robson-Kanu had the most eventful afternoon of everybody at Turf Moor on Saturday, coming on as a substitute to score the winning goal for Albion before getting himself sent off for an over-enthusiastic forearm/head interface with Burnley’s Matthew Lowton. Two games. Two wins. Two goals scored. None conceded. Is this peak Pulis? And should we be calling it “Puke-lis”? West Bromwich Albion supporters could be forgiven for not giving a toss about aesthetics, though, for the time being.
None of the aforementioned matches, however, made it to the still occasionally coveted slot of first on Match of The Day. That honour went to Southampton and West Ham United, who both had an entertaining afternoon which ended with five goals and a late, late winner for Southampton from a Charlie Austin penalty kick two minutes into stoppage-time at the end of the match finally winning it for the home team. Considering that Southampton had previously gone 587 minutes without a home goal it must have felt as though their cup was over-spilling, although they did contrive to find a way of making hard work of it, strolling to a two-goal lead as West Ham, for the second week in a row, imploded before their eyes in the form of the sending off of Marko Arnautovic. The visitors did show a little steel, with Javier Hernandez dragging them back to parity with two goals before Austin’s last-gasp intervention.
Elsewhere on the south coast, however, the news wasn’t as good. Bournemouth were comfortably beaten at home by Watford, whilst Brighton & Hove Albion were beaten at Leicester City in a match which marked the beginning of what seems likely to be a long season for Brighton supporters, if not because their team is starting to look as though it has shortcomings that will make staying in the Premier League something of a tall order then because their first away match of the season was pock-marked by dim-witted homophobic chanting from a section of the Leicester support. Still, at least Brighton supporters could cling to the thinnest of all silver linings at the end of Saturday afternoon. They remain a place above rivals Crystal Palace in the league table after Palace went down by a goal to nil against a Liverpool team that laboured more than it perhaps should have done for the three points. When results aren’t going your way, such linings are to be clung to in the manner that Linus Van Pelt clings to his blanket in Peanuts cartoons. “Forever in our shadow”, indeed.
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