With potential for back-to-back games as soon as next month, Tottenham Hotspur had a rehearsal for the second and came up flat versus Birmingham City in a friendly.
With the Premier League season, Europa League qualifying, and League Cup all starting in the next month, Tottenham Hotspur is going to be playing a lot of matches in a short period of time, with as many as nine over 24 days possible.
In preparation for this congestion and to get some minutes in, Spurs hosted Reading on Friday followed by Birmingham City on Saturday. While the Lilywhites cruised to victory over Reading on Friday, the Saturday match with Birmingham was something different altogether.
So, what went right, what went wrong, and what was accomplished in Spurs’ lackluster friendly with Birmingham?
Spurs start young and slow
In the first two friendlies this preseason, Tottenham Hotspur got off on the front foot, scoring in the first 10 minutes of both matches and having a 2-0 lead before either first half was half-over. Both of those Spurs’ starting units were strong, with superstar Heung-Min Son leading the line on both occasions with Harry Kane still in quarantine.
In both of those matches, Spurs started with very experienced sides and then slowly became younger as the match went on, bringing on academy talent. Against Birmingham, it was a far different starting line-up with a lot more youth from the off. Without Son on the pitch and Kane only on the bench, the lack of a second striker was quite clear as Lucas Moura played okay but failed miserably to lead the line.
In fact, only four of the starting 11 were part of the rotation last season, as Eric Dier started and captained the team, along with Serge Aurier, Moussa Sissoko, and Moura. Sure, Joe Hart was starting, but as was the case in his previous two appearances, never made a save. The rest of the team was highlighted by fringe rotation players Ryan Sessegnon and Gedson Fernandes and then a bunch of academy products and potential loanees.
Cameron Carter-Vickers, Dennis Cirkin, Harvey White, and Jack Clarke all started for Tottenham and played the full first half, with Clarke continuing until Son replaced him on 70 minutes and CCV played the entire game. The good news is that Carter-Vickers played a full 90 and was decent – conceivably good enough to find a good loan and eventually a permanent deal. Even better outside of Dier, who was all over the pitch, Harvey White and Dennis Cirkin were Spurs’ best players in the first half.
White already is at the level of where Nabil Bentalib was when he was left-footing the ball around the park for Tottenham and his football IQ is lightyears beyond the former Spur. White looks to get on the ball and is comfortable when it is at his feet and played several good balls today, an excellent display from the young lad.
Speaking of comfortable on the ball, Cirkin looks like a player who has handled the pressure of left-back for years. At one point late in the first half, he received the ball near the touchline on a bad pass under pressure. Cirkin was calm and dribbled his way out of trouble before passing to safety. The ability to stay composed on the ball and get yourself out of a bad situation is critical for a good fullback. Cirkin seems to have that in his toolkit, which should excite us all.
The first half was really a message to Daniel Levy to get Spurs another striker as Moura was unable to lead the line. Additionally, while the young players did well, the ball simply moved too slowly, particularly between Dier and CCV. On the positive side, there was a LOT of ball hunting, something we did not see much of from Spurs during Jose Mourinho’s first half-season. Eventually, those efforts will pay off.
Tottenham second half sting
Mourinho began to bring on the reinforcements in the second half, with Hugo Lloris, Ben Davies, Dele Alli, and Steven Bergwijn all coming on to get 45 minutes under their belt. Despite bringing on these veterans, the half did not necessarily start a whole lot more effectively for Tottenham. Spurs were able to move the ball up and down the pitch, particularly up the right side with Sissoko, Aurier, and Clarke, but could not seem to connect on anything.
The highlight in the first 54 minutes might have been Lucas Moura’s failed attempt at an overhead scissor kick after taking a bad touch on a cross. The game was sort of in the same lull it started in, then at 61 minutes, things began to change. It was at that point that Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg came on the pitch for Sissoko and the difference could be seen immediately.
Sissoko works extremely hard and as such often finds himself on the ball. Alternatively, Hojbjerg commands the ball, and as such the ball finds him. It was apparent from the moment he stepped on the pitch that the vibe was different. I am not going to say Hojbjerg is Mousa Dembele, but he brings the same feeling to the pitch, where everyone is more confident, especially when he is on the ball.
Following Hojbjerg’s introduction, the match went from a back-and-forth midfield tussle to an offense versus defense training exercise for Spurs. While it certainly was not Hojbjerg alone and Son still came on and again took the team to another level, the difference in how Tottenham could play both on and off the ball with and without Hojbjerg was stark.
It was clear PEH and Son were not going to settle for a draw and I do not really blame them, as I am not sure I would want to come to practice with Mourinho the next day after drawing a team a full division beneath me. The boys kept pressing and Hojbjerg was forcing his way further and further into the box. He tried a little chip to Dele, but Andres Prieto cut it out for Birmingham.
At 80 minutes, it seemed Tottenham was finally going to break through. Son and Dele had played some nice combinations to get Son on the ball in the center of the box. Instead of turning and shooting, Son saw Ryan Sessegnon flashing in toward the goal and laid off the perfect back pass. Sessegnon nailed the ball with the inside of his right foot but hit the outside of the side netting. Ryan is super talented, but he clearly is lacking in confidence and, in this situation, understanding.
Anyone who has played football has probably completed a diagonal shooting drill and should know in a situation like that you hit the ball back where it came to the far post. The decision to go near post makes me wonder what level of coaching Sessegnon has had prior to Mourinho, as this is attacking football 101.
I digress, because just as it looked like Tottenham were leaving empty-handed, number 23 saved Spurs’ bacon. Steven Bergwijn almost inexplicably was cleared the ball by Birmingham at the top of the box. Stevie did not wait to say thank you as he took a touch and lasered the ball into the right corner past Prieto. A subdued celebration followed as it was literally the last kick of the match and the whistle blew right at the kickoff.
Ultimately, it was another decent run-out in terms of getting some minutes under the players’ belts and knocking off the continued rust. It continues to be clear Tottenham still need some creativity in attack, as well as more from the wings, and a back-up striker.
Whether any of those issues are addressed before the window closes is anyone’s guess, but the evidence of the need is clear. Spurs next play their final preseason friendly, next Saturday at Vicarage Road against recently-relegated Watford FC.