Spurs are lost without Eriksen's creativity; will they have to get used to his absence?
LONDON -- This was supposed to be the match that would kickstart Tottenham Hotspur's season.
After needing a Harry Kane rescue act to overcome promoted Aston Villa on the opening weekend and then somehow coming away from Manchester City with a statistically miraculous 2-2 draw, this game, against a Newcastle United team who were without a point and had just lost 3-1 at Premier League new boys Norwich City, would be the one where the shackles came off. Or at least, that was the theory.
Instead it was Newcastle who found themselves celebrating a potential turning point after Joelinton's coolly taken goal earned the visitors a wholly unexpected but richly merited 1-0 victory on a cloyingly hot and sunny afternoon at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Tottenham were left to rue two contentious penalty incidents -- one in each half -- in which referee Mike Dean ignored their appeals despite evidence that Mauricio Pochettino's men might have actually had a case. But to reduce the match to another VAR controversy would be to deprive Newcastle of the credit they deserved for a brilliantly dogged backs-to-the-wall display and absolve the home side of responsibility for contriving to convert 80% of possession into just two attempts on target.
Just as against Villa, Pochettino left Christian Eriksen, the team's chief creator, on the bench and it was not until the Dane made his entrance, in the 62nd minute, that the home side began to knock on the Newcastle door at a level louder than a polite tap. Eriksen, 27, has entered the last year of his contract and indicated earlier this summer that the time had come for him to move on.
Pochettino has conceded that the issue is problematic and said the fact that transfer windows were still open in Europe's other major leagues meant his squad remained "unsettled," but he dismissed suggestions that the question mark over Eriksen's future had had any bearing on his team selection.
"I cannot pick more than 11," he told reporters. "I understand you are going to ask me. If the result is 3-0 [to Spurs], you're not going to ask me that question. The players who are out are always good when you don't win. I don't want to justify our performance because of that."
One player who did make the Spurs starting XI was Son Heung-Min, who returned from a three-game suspension. The South Korean forward worked Newcastle goalkeeper Martin Dubravka with a well-struck volley in the first half, but by that point Spurs were already behind.
There again, Pochettino's picks fell beneath the spotlight. Davinson Sanchez was again preferred to Jan Vertonghen, whose contract will also be up at the end of the season, and the Colombian centre-back was caught underneath the ball when Christian Atsu clipped a pass into the Spurs box from Newcastle's left in the 27th minute. With Danny Rose failing to sense the danger, Joelinton had time to bring the ball down and place a low shot past Hugo Lloris for his first goal in English football since his club-record £40 million switch from Hoffenheim.
With Eriksen watching on from the dugout, Spurs became sucked into endless sequences of lateral passing in the second half as Newcastle crammed 10 men behind the ball. Steve Bruce had set his team out in a 3-4-2-1 system that morphed into a 5-4-1 in the defensive phase, with attacking midfielders Miguel Almiron and Atsu -- an early substitute for the injured Allan Saint-Maximin -- dropping deep to provide extra protection in front of wing-backs Emil Krafth and Matt Ritchie.
Sean Longstaff and Isaac Hayden screened the defence; centre-backs Jamaal Lascelles, Fabian Schar and Paul Dummett threw themselves at every loose ball as if their lives depended on it. The one player allowed to stay up the pitch, Joelinton, battled tirelessly to give Newcastle an out ball and take the sting out of the game, right down to the booking he received for taking too long to leave the pitch when he was replaced by Yoshinori Muto in the closing stages.
Schar and Lascelles were protagonists in the two penalty incidents, the former sliding in on Son, the latter appearing to trip over his own feet as Kane shaped to shoot from Giovani Lo Celso's clever pass. Neither got a clear touch on the ball and both seemed to make contact with their opponent, but in both cases Dean's decision to wave play on was not deemed a sufficiently clear and obvious error for the men in front of the video screens to intervene.
Eriksen's entrance, along with home debutant Lo Celso, enabled Spurs to establish a foothold 15 yards closer to Newcastle's goal and finally, the chances came. Moussa Sissoko, who switched to right-back after Kyle Walker-Peters went off injured, teed up first Lucas Moura and then Kane with cut-backs from the right, but the Brazilian hooked his shot over the bar from 10 yards and the England striker failed to even make telling contact. Eriksen tried his luck, too, but his left-foot curler was tipped wide by Dubravka.
Spurs now have a week to clear their heads before next weekend's trip to Arsenal in the North London derby. The European transfer windows closes the following day, and when Pochettino was asked if Eriksen might have already played his last game for the club, he could only reply: "I don't know."
Being without Eriksen's creativity might be something that Spurs have to get used to.