If We’re Honest: Tottenham’s 1-0 Loss to United

Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur defender Kyle Walker (2) controls the ball against the MLS All Stars during the first half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick
Jul 29, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Tottenham Hotspur defender Kyle Walker (2) controls the ball against the MLS All Stars during the first half of the 2015 MLS All Star Game at Dick /
Toby Alderweireld
Toby Alderweireld debuted in Tottenham’s defense against Manchester United at Old Trafford Saturday. /

The 1-0 scoreline with which Manchester United beat Tottenham for the English Premier League’s opening fixture Saturday is misleading. It doesn’t reflect the balance of play on the day. It doesn’t give proper credit to the match’s best performances. It is the single cloud in any otherwise vibrantly blue sky. If it seems a bit dark right now, it’s just that that cloud seems to be gliding in front of the sun for the moment.

It’s hard to be optimistic about an opening day loss to one of our most heated rivals, but let’s try anyways shall we? The following five points are an attempt to find the genuine positives of the match, not just the silver lining of that aforementioned cloud. Stripped of all (or most) of their homerisms, these are objective observations of a match that belies its scoreline.

Tottenham looked vastly improved in defense

That’s a difficult point to defend given Kyle Walker’s own goal, but it’s true. In the corresponding fixture last March, Tottenham lost 3-0. Manchester United only tallied three more shots total in that game compared to Saturday’s, but over half of them – seven, to be precise – came from inside the penalty area, including all three goals scored. On Saturday, United managed three shots on target in the area, only one of which was on target.

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That might not seem like a dramatic improvement – especially considering it’s only one game – but it is at least suggestive of a more sound and disciplined defense. Just look at how FourFourTwo’s Statszone shows the contrasting offensive efforts United made on Saturday compared to March’s fixture. We can plainly see that United didn’t have nearly the level of penetration they did last season and were mostly confined to passing back and forth a few yards outside the penalty area. Even the flanks, expertly patrolled by Ben Davies and, yes, Kyle Walker, were denied to Louis Van Gaal’s boys.

It’s too early to draw an definitive conclusion, but at the very least we can say that Pochettino seems to have identified and begun to address the gaping maw that was Tottenham’s defense last season. Imagine how improved Spurs would be if they can prevent even ten less goals from going through this season.

Kyle Walker boosted by competition

Kyle Walker looked his old self again Saturday. Barring the own goal – which itself was more bad luck than error – the 2011/12 PFA Young Player of the Year turned in vintage performance. He frequently denied Ashley Young the ball or, at the very least, kept the England winger wide of his most dangerous areas. Even if his offensive contribution wasn’t his typical dive-bombing effort, it showed maturity for Walker to deny his impulses and remain responsible at the back. Overall, it was the performance Spurs needed from him.

It’s safe to assume that, prior to the arrival of Kieran Trippier this offseason, Walker didn’t have proper competition at rightback. Kyle Naughton was easily the worst player on Tottenham’s books these past two seasons and was only on the pitch as a last resort. Vlad Chiricheș and Eric Dier were makeshift solutions out wide at best, and it remains unclear if DeAndre Yedlin was bought merely for jersey sales or if Pochettino has higher aspirations for the young American.

In any case, Walker rightfully never thought his starting position in jeopardy despite his long layoff due to injury. Trippier, though, is well suited for Pochettino’s high-energy style of play. Were it not for Walker’s reputation within the club, we most certainly would have seen him Saturday instead. Perhaps it’s exactly that threat that Walker needed to come out guns a-blazin’. Hopefully that enthusiasm will last.

Nabil Bentaleb is young and will make mistakes

The young Algerian’s misplaced pass that led to Walker’s last ditch tackle / own goal no doubt inspired groans from Spurs fandom worldwide. It was precisely that kind of error – giving possession away too easily, especially against opponents finely tuned to exploit such mistakes – that has mired the last two seasons for Tottenham.

It wasn’t a one-off, either: Bentaleb on the whole had a poor game. Perhaps he felt confused by Eric Dier’s surprise turn in midfield alongside him. Perhaps it was the stress of Tottenham’s third match of the week. In any case, it wasn’t the kind of performance we expect from Bentaleb. Since his promotion in 2013/14, he’s looked like the midfielder of Tottenham’s future. His enthusiasm and skill are beyond evident. He might even earn the captainship sooner rather than later.

And guess what: Saturday’s bad performance changes none of that. The 20 year old will learn from this and grow. He’ll be better next time, better the time after that, and so on. There’s no reason to lose hope in the boy.

Tottenham need another midfielder

Well that sounds like losing hope in the boy, doesn’t it? It’s not though; it’s merely an acknowledgement that Eric Dier is not the answer to Tottenham’s midfield woes. He was competent Saturday, yes. He remains one of Spurs’ most confounding players, if only for his wide-ranging versatility. What is truly needed though is a devoted holding midfielder, one that can properly cover the defense while those players in front of him surge forward in attack.

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Who that player might be remains to be seen. We know – or suspect – that Tottenham have been testing the waters on Dortmund’s Sven Bender. Acquiring the German international could perhaps be Tottenham’s biggest coup of this transfer window. His eye for a decisive tackle and a quick interception would be a perfect complement to Tottenham’s possibly revitalized defense.

Pochettino looks toward youth

Tottenham fielded one of the younger squads in the Premier League last season, and Pochettino looks to be doubling down on that trend in 2015/16. Among the usual names on his official squad sheet this season you’ll find youth products Harry Winks, Alex Pritchard, Tom Carroll and Dele Alli. Their inclusion might end up being temporary – loan moves are still a possibility – but it’s encouraging to say the least that another quality generation of players lies in wait on the sidelines. How well each of these players performs in the Premier League remains to be seen, but it’s nonetheless encouraging to see their names in the matchday squad.

Next: Conversation Corner: Tottenham at Man United