Tottenham Hotspur fielded a strong side to face Middlesbrough in the FA Cup but the away side still needed a Lucas Moura header to avoid defeat.
Everyone knew Harry Kane and Tanguy Ndombele were going to be out; add Moussa Sissoko to the absentee list and suddenly Tottenham are quite short. Jose Mourinho, like predicted, fielded a strong squad for the third round tie at Middlesbrough in the FA Cup.
The elements and another disinterested first half kept Middlesbrough in the game and almost cost Spurs any shot at the cup. Tottenham can thank a Moura header for the draw.
A Puncher’s chance
While the gap between Championship and Premier League clubs is nowhere near what it was 15 or even 10 years ago, it still exists. Given Spurs were on the road, one had to expect the home side would come out with some real energy and effort. All Tottenham needed to do was withstand that first 5-10 minutes in each half.
The first half played out as expected, with Middlesbrough on top for the first 5-7 minutes. Then, for the most part, Tottenham took control of possession and slowly lumbered the ball around the park, looking for some long balls, but mostly playing sideways and around the back.
In the second half Middlesbrough flipped the script when they managed to break through in the opening minutes of the half. As we’ve seen numerous times all season, a simple ball down Route-1 was all it took. This time, a lack of pressure allowed George Saville to pick out a long ball to Ashley Fletcher, who managed to beat the offside trap and finish past Gazzaniga.
Yes, VAR would have probably called Fletcher off, but frankly Boro deserved the lead. And while Tottenham did fight back and level to force the replay in two weeks, not being able to absorb early pressure, again conceding an easy goal on a simple through ball is cause for great concern at the club.
The Argentine response
When Tottenham went down 1-0 Jose Mourinho turned to his two Argentinians on the bench, Erik Lamela and Giovani Lo Celso. While neither ended up scoring or assisting, they both made an immediate impact and certainly turned the tide. Sessegnon had not played a bad match and maybe shouldn’t have come off, but up to that point Winks hadn’t done much.
While Winks was just jostling with the ball, playing it horizontally across the park too much, Lamela immediately attacked on the dribble, putting the home side under pressure and making things happen.
Unfortunately he wasted his best break by feeding to Serge Aurier – who was wasteful with a terrible shot that went well wide and over. A simple pass into the middle where both Lamela and Lo Celso were open would have likely resulted in a 1-2 Spurs victory.
Lamela then took a yellow card, nothing new for Lamela. But this time it was in defence of his teammate and countryman Lo Celso, who was hacked down by Saville. While I don’t condone any violence in football, seeing some fight was long overdue, as Lamela stalked Saville around the pitch. He had to be held back by his teammates as he went to back for a comrade in arms. Ultimately the fight that Lamela showed is something we just haven’t seen enough of from Spurs this season.
Lo Celso still hasn’t quite adapted to the pace of English football. I can’t blame teams for not wanting to give him room, but Lo Celso needs to find a way to excel under pressure and in tight quarters. That said, he moved the ball quicker today and pops up in good places. Patience is required as he adjusts.
What’s next for Spurs
Tottenham have a big week of practice as they prepare for Liverpool next weekend. They will then host Middlesbrough – likely on Tuesday, January 14 – in an FA Cup replay. Another three matches in short succession is not what Mourinho wanted. Watford rounds out the trifecta the following Saturday. While it’s not the result Tottenham wanted, a home cup replay is a lot better than being ousted in the third round by a Championship side.