Opinion: VAR and all that

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Dom Le Roy

Since Pep Guardiola famously referred to Spurs as the ‘Harry Kane Team’ (Guardian), the Lillywhites have defeated Manchester City on 2 occasions without their talisman.  Despite an improved performance v Liverpool, even the most optimistic of Spurs fans wouldn’t have predicted a hat trick of wins and certainly not the two goal to nil victory that was forthcoming.

But for a combination of the woodwork, poor finishing and a captain’s performance from Hugo Lloris, Manchester City could have been out of sight by half time.  There are some days however, particularly against the ‘current’ Champions where what happens in the 90 minutes pales into insignificance against the result.  This was a day to bask in the glory of the end result and boy did it feel good!

Before the game I was mildly optimistic.  I felt that following an inconsistent start, Mourinho needed a result that sent out a statement to the rest of the league and his own fans.  This coupled with the fact that Spurs need to start making memories that are befitting of their ‘new’ palatial surroundings. 

What the fans were rewarded with was a result that sent them home with a smile on their faces – this is why they keep coming week in week out, rain or shine. 

What was interesting was that fact that despite Spurs being largely on the back foot and aside from the goals, not registering their first shot on target until the 92nd minute this somehow didn’t matter.  Spurs had gained their first result against a top 4 ‘rival’ for 13 games.  I believe fans will expect a more offensive game when playing against teams in the lower half of the table but yesterday was all about the result.

Jose Mourinho clearly builds his sides from the back and the clean sheet (by hook or by crook) will have been particularly pleasing.  During the first half Spurs only really looked dangerous when on the counter attack.  Even then, and I’m sure by design, there often seemed a lack of support for the player breaking with the ball.

When Sergio Aguero rattled the post following a misplaced Davinson Sanchez pass mid-way through the first half, it seemed inevitable that Manchester City would go into the break leading at half time.  Then with just over 5 minutes of the first half remaining, chaos ensued.

Serge Aurier attempted a tackle on Aguero in the penalty area and for a brief second most Spurs fans expected Mike Dean to ‘theatrically’ point to the penalty spot.  Much to the relief of 90% of the stadium the referee gestured the ball had been won.

Safe in the knowledge that the disaster was averted, a number of Spurs fans made their way to join the queues for their half time refreshments.  I am led to believe that nearly 2 minutes had passed (it seemed far longer) when Mike Dean, stood firmly in Manchester City’s half, pointed to the spot to award a penalty to Manchester City courtesy of a VAR check.  Whether the delay was due to Mike Dean waiting for the ball to go into a ‘neutral area’ or just a bumbling attempt by HQ to make a decision, either way, the delay was unacceptable.  Quite why the game wasn’t stopped immediately I will never know.  We are now into February.  Teething problems can’t be offered any more as an excuse.

The drama didn’t end here.  Hugo Lloris went to his left to claw away the resulting penalty kick.  Raheem Sterling rushed in for the rebound and went over Lloris outstretched arm.  The stadium again held its breath as VAR decreed that no foul had been committed.  It looked tight but Sterling did himself no favours by going down rather easily.

Sterling himself lucky to be on the pitch following a studs-up tackle that left Dele Alli writhing in agony.  VAR seems to be very adept at awarding marginal offsides but this joined a long list of dangerous tackles that are seemingly going unpunished after referral.

Some pundits (the usual suspects) claimed that the performance wasn’t down to a Mourinho masterclass but more to do with City’s blunt attack.  There was no doubting that the reaction to the Sterling incident was classic Mourinho!  Having taken their places back in the dugout with a big smile on their faces Joao Sacramento realised that Sterling had already been booked and believed that a second yellow card for simulation should have been forthcoming.  Jose’s reaction in sprinting to the fourth official the actions on a man who still has the fire burning in his belly.

Ironically the VAR debacle seemed to rouse the players and crowd into life and there was a remarkable improvement in the atmosphere in the stadium.  However, as one sportswriter claimed VAR has the ability to turn crowds and atmospheres toxic.  It’s a fine line.  This was obviously a massive game against the team currently sitting in second.  Imagine the scenes if the same series of events was played out in the North London derby…..

Back to the initial penalty, I felt sorry for Serge Aurier as the crowd will remember his performance for the penalty rather than another industrious contribution.   The Ivorian has all of the attributes that Jose Mourinho looks for in his players but despite doing his best to keep him further up the pitch it’s inevitable that he will be called upon to tackle in his own penalty area.  The recklessness is one side of his game that doesn’t seem to have improved under the Portuguese Manager and in cricketing terms he is still a ‘walking wicket’.

On 60 minutes Manchester City’s Zinchenko was sent off for 2 bookable offences.  Without this, I have my doubts whether Spurs would have recorded the victory however this was against the Champions and we all know that it’s not always easy against ten men.

A debut goal from Steven Bergjwin, wearing Eriksen’s vacated number 23 shirt, and a deflected shot from Son Heung-min gave Spurs a two-nil victory and sent the home fans wild.

Although outplayed, this performance represented an uplift from the Liverpool performance after the disappointment of the Manchester United and Chelsea encounters.  The team looked young, fresh and together and there were a number of notable performances.

Japhet Tanganga seems to warrant a mention in every match report these days and put in another solid performance while effectively out of position.  The fact that he (and Davinson Sanchez) are both starting ahead of Jan Vertonghen suggests that the Belgian may be leaving in the summer.  Despite seemingly wanting to stay, I would imagine that Spurs contract offer (if there is one) is representative of his advancing years.

Harry Winks for me was brilliant and I think Mourinho is now seeing him as a vital cog in the team having quickly realised Eric Dier is not the player that he hoped he was.

The substitutes Erik Lamela and Tanguay N’Dombele both made instant impacts.  We come to expect this from Lamela but it was promising to see Jose seemingly trusting Tanguay at a crucial stage in the game.

Finally, a mention must be made of young Steven Bergwijn who scored a very good goal on his debut and ran his socks off for the cause.  While I won’t get carried away, for Mourinho to throw him in for his debut after just four training sessions suggests the lad may have a big future.

Spurs now have the opportunity to build on the many positives as they entertain Southampton on Wednesday evening in the FA Cup replay.  I would imagine that Jose will name a very strong side with a number of the squad now reaching fitness at a crucial time in the season.

The game is taking part during the ‘curiously named’ winter break.  Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool team have the luxury of a ‘duvet day’ by virtue of the fact that they will have the league won by Shrove Tuesday.  While Spurs are not in that enviable position hopefully the game will represent the chance to build on the progress being made under Jose.  COYS.


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