Tottenham punish Shelvey stupidity, Newcastle undone by indiscipline
NEWCASTLE -- Three quick points from Newcastle 0-2 Tottenham at St James' Park in the Premier League on Sunday afternoon.
1. Tottenham prevail, Newcastle's indiscipline
There was an air of high enthusiasm about Newcastle on Sunday. Thousands of Geordies in their barcode replica shirts giddily made their way up the hill from the city centre to St James' Park, thrilled that Premier League football was back. By mid-afternoon, that enthusiasm had waned: the problem with being among the elite is you have to play them every week.
Tottenham's 2-0 win over Rafa Benitez's team was aided by Jonjo Shelvey's ludicrous red card not long after half time, but this was still an illustration of what a desperately tough season this is going to be for Newcastle. Goals from Dele Alli and Ben Davies did the trick for Tottenham, who still look a little rusty -- and some of their starting lineup provided an illustration of how far they need to go -- but this was a match between a team of game triers and one of genuine class.
Mauricio Pochettino made a couple of surprising choices in his starting XI. Kyle Walker-Peters, despite a suggestion last week that he's not yet ready for first team action, was in the team at right-back, while the much-maligned former Newcastle man Moussa Sissoko started on the right wing. The home fans, who branded him "greedy" in rather robust terms, did not exactly welcome Sissoko back with great warmth.
The first half was scrappy and disjointed as both teams showed plenty of endeavour but neither created too many clear chances. Christian Atsu was a threat down the Newcastle left, while Christian Eriksen probed and directed matters for Tottenham. The most notable feature of the half was Newcastle losing two of their back four within 30 minutes: left-back Paul Dummett pulled a hamstring and new central defender Florian Lejeune was forced off after an uncharacteristically aggressive challenge from Harry Kane. He got the ball, but had to go through the Frenchman's shins to do so: the yellow card that followed was entirely justified.
Shortly after half time, Newcastle were reduced to 10. Shelvey, captain for the day and starting perhaps the most important season of his career back in the top flight, trod on Alli's foot while the Spurs midfielder was on the ground. Shelvey shook his head and Benitez looked even more exasperated than usual, but there was nobody else to blame.
Not long after that, Spurs took the lead. Newcastle's 10 men tried to mass their ranks centrally to deny Spurs space, but a brilliant curled ball over the top by Eriksen found Alli free in the box, and he slid home a relatively simple finish.
Shortly afterwards it was two. A superb, flowing phase of passing found Eriksen in the box, a slightly lucky bounce off a Newcastle shin saw the ball fall into the path of Davies, and he swept the ball home.
From there, Tottenham cruised. Kane hit the post then had a goal disallowed for offside, but there was little danger of Newcastle getting back into the game. For both teams, it might be a portent of things to come.
2. Alli the man for Tottenham
Pochettino has spent the weeks leading up to the start of the season looking increasingly frustrated about Tottenham's lack of transfer business, and the right flank of his team showed why. Sissoko and Walker-Peters are nobody's idea of title-winning players (the latter not yet at least, the former probably not ever), and their selection was probably not what Pochettino had in mind at the end of last season.
But while new arrivals haven't been forthcoming, it's easy to forget that Spurs still have arguably the most effective attacking midfielder in the Premier League, who has started this season in form which suggests that won't be changing any time soon. Alli scored 22 goals last season, quite a return for a man who -- and it's still worth being reminded of this occasionally -- was in League One two years ago. Who's to say he won't improve that this term?
His goal here was classic Alli, a beautifully timed run that exploited Newcastle's numerical disadvantage perfectly, finding enough space behind their defence to slot Eriksen's cross away perfectly. Alli said last season his finishing needed the most improvement, but the beauty of him is that he gets into good enough positions to make scoring relatively simple.
Not too many of his goals are spectacular, or require great finishing dexterity, largely because his choice and timing of runs are so good. Paolo Maldini used to say that if he had to make a tackle, he'd already made a mistake: Alli might have a similar motto, that if he has to make a difficult finish, he has not positioned himself correctly.
New signings are needed and will probably arrive, but while Alli and his colleagues are still this good, they might not be quite as vital.
3. Never a dull moment with the Toon
It was notable how quick the home fans were to express dissatisfaction at how their team were performing, in the first half at least.
Before the break, Newcastle were probably about as good as could be reasonably expected: a newly promoted side containing the team who finished second in the Premier League last season, losing two of their back four by the half-hour mark and whose starting team featured only two new arrivals.
Javier Manquillo and Lejeune were the only additions to the team that won promotion last season, and you can see why Benitez is unhappy about Newcastle's summer transfer dealings. Benitez, who retains the loyalty of the fans, might think he and his players deserve a little more slack.
It doesn't help when your captain gets himself sent off in the most brainless manner. In the first half Shelvey had sensibly advised Jamaal Lascelles not to get involved in a needless quarrel with Alli, instantly dispelled the notion he has matured when he trod on Alli's foot not long after half time. It wasn't the most vicious act, but its stupidity and pointlessness were more egregious than the force of his boot.
There is half an assumption Newcastle will be fine this season, the best-placed of the three promoted teams to make an impact. They have a manager whose status is frankly above their own, theoretically plenty of money and the most involved support in the country. But last season they were by no means head and shoulders above everyone else in the Championship, and only won the title after a late-season slump by Brighton.
Their failure to significantly strengthen has been a source of ostentatious frustration for Benitez, and if anything good came from this defeat, it provided a perfect example of exactly why. Problems are not always solved in the transfer market, but these next couple of weeks will be crucial for Newcastle's prospects.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.