After the first leg of the tie against Pacos de Ferreira, I had flashbacks to the many Spurs teams in years gone by which lacked the focus to get them over the line in matches.
From some terrible part of my mind, the memory of the 2005-6 season came forward, when Tottenham lost to Grimsby in the first round of the League Cup and to then-Championship side Leicester in the first round of the FA cup.
The Lillywhites had all the talent to win, but none of the mental fortitude to put away an, on paper, inferior opponent.
After losing 1-0 in Portugal last week, I feared that the win against Manchester City was an early-season fluke, some fleeting new managerial magic and that Spurs had regressed to the bad old days of mid-table finishes and ignominious cup exits.
But then, we beat Wolves in yet another 1-0 match that tested the players’ fitness and mental fortitude. Back in London, Spurs polished off Pacos—a team that, with all due respect, Spurs ought to beat every time—to advance to the group stage of the Europa Conference League.
That makes for three match-ups in a row where Spurs could have switched off, even for a moment, and lost the advantage, but didn’t. That is a showing of massive mental strength to start the season, which is not recently a quality seen in and around White Hart Lane.
Nuno Espirito Santo recognised as much after the game at Molineux: “It was a very demanding game, we were compact and defended well. I’m very proud of the boys – they worked very hard.”
Some commentators have been quick to pick up on this new grit from Spurs. Andrew Rowley of BBC Radio London said about the Man City match: “Whatever Spurs supporters felt about Nuno Espirito Santo’s appointment it must have been reassuring to see the industry and endeavour the players showed on Sunday for the new boss.”
James Olley of ESPN wrote: “Under Mourinho in particular, there was a sense Spurs were hanging on as City dominated after taking one of precious few chances at the other end. Yet on this occasion, Spurs could have been further ahead.”
The team had “industry and endeavour.” Against the champions of England, they “could have been further ahead.” This is a focus rarely seen with Spurs. There was a certain comfort under Pochettino as the team frequently had possession for 60% or more of the game, and while I do not belittle the difficulty of playing that high pressing game, what we’re seeing now is different.
Nuno has the lads confident when not in possession, and dug in with the extraordinary focus which looking for the counter-attack requires. To echo Olley, the system may have looked similar under Mourinho, but the players are executing it at a higher level early on this season.
None of this is to say Spurs are a finished product ready to win to the league, hardly.
Adama Traore ought to have levelled for Wolves when through on goal against Hugo Lloris, only for the Frenchman to show great composure, blocking the shot with his leg. Dele’s penalty was a debatable call. If those two moments go the other way, a win could easily become a defeat.
The side which took to the field in the second leg against Pacos had the notable addition of Harry Kane, who would improve almost any team in the world.
But all teams miss chances during a game and it’s impossible to ignore the improved performances of new signings Bryan Gil and Christian Romero from the first leg to the second.
The best teams take advantage of the breaks they get and don’t get shaken when those breaks go the other way. It’s early days, but Spurs have shown that composure through the first four matches.
Nuno and the lads deserve credit.
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