Harry Kane and Tottenham grind out course-correcting win at Brighton
There are times when the next day's headlines flash before your eyes. Showing a glimmer of his old sharpness, Harry Kane ran clear in the third minute of stoppage time with Tottenham leading 2-0, only for Mat Ryan to save with his feet when another Spurs goal seemed certain. Then Anthony Knockaert, who had missed a fine chance to equalise at 1-0, found his range. First he cut inside and smashed a superb effort past Paulo Gazzaniga; straight from the restart he took aim once again, swung his left foot at the ball ... and drew a plunging save to the stand-in goalkeeper's right. It was the game's final action and Tottenham had squeezed home the 2-1 result that, all told, they deserved.
But what if Knockaert had succeeded in applying that improbable late twist? Kane would have taken centre stage, his bearings not quite right in open play even if he had opened the scoring with a super-confident penalty, and the question marks would grow bolder. He is still not on his best form, but an examination of his flaws would have been a red herring here and perhaps, for the sake of a clear analysis, it is a good thing Tottenham saw out the win. Ultimately, they showed enough signs of improvement to make Mauricio Pochettino happy; they sealed the dam after three damaging defeats and, despite a spirited second-half response from Brighton, came out feeling a little like their old selves.
"He's a special player but not because he scored," Pochettino said of Kane. "When he didn't score in the past it was the same."
Kane led from the front here, winning the foul -- softly, according to Chris Hughton -- that led to a Spurs' penalty and coming close on two other occasions before that late miss. His performance mirrored that of Tottenham: not up to their highest standards but showing more life and character across the pitch than at any time earlier in the month.
"This mentality to fight, to always give your best -- today the spirit was fantastic, and that was what pleased me the most today," Pochettino said.
He and Tottenham had arrived at Brighton in an unusual position: at no other point in his four-year tenure had there been quite as much scrutiny on his performance and their form, an era of near-constant upward trajectory having stalled slightly. The critics' knives were sharpened. In situations like this the emphasis falls upon those human elements Pochettino mentioned: spirit, fight, bravery, mentality. Getting those right, first and foremost, after such a sloppy few weeks would be like pressing the reset button.
Against a Brighton side whose shape without the ball stands up to anyone else's in the Premier League, Spurs struggled to discover their trademark zip with any consistency. In the first half they dominated the ball to a smothering extent; it only brought them their spot kick, won by a careless Glenn Murray handball, but did ensure they went untroubled at the other end.
Pochettino was delighted with what happened when Tottenham did stretch out, and Erik Lamela's clinching goal came after a superb counter that the Argentina international had started himself. Football like that is the benchmark of this team when they are in full flow. Here, the measure of their performance had necessarily shifted slightly: low on form and confronted by a confident home side amid a howling gale and driving rain, it was a day to do the simple things well.
They stood up firmly enough to Brighton's second-half recovery, managing to avoid a repeat of recent failings from set-pieces as the crosses rained in during a frantic spell between the 60th and 70th minutes. Hearts fluttered just the once, when Lewis Dunk nodded home ahead of Gazzaniga only to see the goal ruled out for offside. Pochettino suggested that Gazzaniga, who had not played a first-team game since last November -- and only found out he was playing on Saturday morning after Michel Vorm was ruled out by injury -- should have been named man of the match. He referred to his countryman's "personality" and "character" -- attributes that, on this of all days, he had needed from the entire Tottenham team.
Pochettino will hope this was like a clearing of the throat, a purging of any negative feelings and a chance for Tottenham to pick up where, with that 3-0 win at Old Trafford a month ago, they had left off on such a high.
"The spirit we showed today is the spirit I wanted to see in all the games," he said. "We know very well we have great players, great quality and can play amazing football."
If you show the first, it gives you a far better chance of being able to display the second. For Pochettino, Tottenham and Kane, a return to basics felt like the first step in their recovery from a nasty jolt. Surviving that chaotic final minute at the Amex Stadium might prove one of the most important points of the season -- individually and collectively.