You had to feel sorry for Ange Postecoglou when he received his third successive Premier League Manager of the Month award on November 10th. Seldom have the gods of Narrative laid a more obvious trap.
Four days earlier Spurs had lost 4-1 at home to Chelsea, a defeat which also cost them Micky van de Ven and James Maddison to long-term injuries and Cristian Romero to a three-match suspension.
Neither had it been Postecoglou’s finest hour, coaching-wise. His approach in the last half-hour after Spurs had two men sent off had been ridiculous. Defending on the halfway line without the numbers to put pressure on the ball, he could hardly have set Chelsea an easier problem to solve. Spurs were lucky not to lose by more than three goals.
Afterwards, asked to explain his insane tactics, Postecoglou replied: “It’s just who we are mate.”
This was worrying. Refusing to accept that you have to adapt to circumstances like having two players sent off is . . . who you are? Denying reality is a point of pride?
Yet most Spurs fans chose to take a generous view of what Postecoglou had done – applauding after the Chelsea goals to make the point that they admired the spirit, if not the outcome.
Two more defeats followed against Wolves and Aston Villa and, as Spurs prepared to travel to Manchester City, still without Maddison and van de Ven and Romero, Postecoglou found himself being being buttered up by Pep Guardiola the way you might butter a chicken before putting it in the oven.
Guardiola claimed to have been blown away by the quality of Postecoglou’s work at (City Football Group member) Yokohama Marinos and claimed “he makes football a better place”.
This kind of effusive Guardiola praise has been the prelude to many a slaughter at the Etihad. When Julian Alvarez spun and played in Phil Foden to put City 2-1 up, Spurs looked certain to be headed to a fourth defeat in a row.
Nobody then would have expected the match to end with Erling Haaland having a kind of Klaus Kinski meltdown at the referee before storming off down the tunnel, his mane bouncing in time with his stomps.
Haaland had missed two simple chances in the first half, both of which had arisen after Spurs gave the ball away as they tried to play out from the back. A similar Spurs mistake had ended with Julian Alvarez cracking one off the post.
What Spurs were doing looked suicidal. How could they expect to get away with taking such risks in their own half against the intense pressing and precise attacking of a team like City? Would they not have been better off sitting deep, kicking long and trying to hang on until full time?
If they had, maybe they would not have conceded as many chances – but they also could not have scored the goal that made it 2-2.
Postecoglou did recognise his team needed more stability in midfield, sending on Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for Bryan Gil at half-time. The personnel changed but the aggressive approach did not. They equalised when Ben Davies, the centre-back, rushed forward to beat Haaland to a ball inside the City half and Spurs, because they had been pressing high, had enough players forward to make the chance count.
Into the final 15 minutes of the game it might have seemed sensible for Spurs to start kicking it long – and indeed that is what goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario started to do. He booted three long balls up the field in five minutes, after playing only six long balls in the first 75. The third of these long clearances led to City’s third goal.
That move also involved a mistake by Yves Bissouma, who turned and dribbled back inside when a safe pass was on, but it was a reminder that going long can be just as risky as trying to play it out from the back. When you are under pressure, putting distance between the ball and your goal seems like common sense, but what you are really doing is sacrificing control for the illusion of safety.
Spurs reverted to playing it out from the back and that is how they scored their spectacular late equaliser. Oliver Skipp defied a swarm of City pressers in the centre circle to set the move in motion. When Dejan Kulusevski arrived on Nathan Ake’s blindside, the risks paid off for Spurs.
The result vindicated Postecoglou’s obstinacy; he deserved some breaks going his way after a difficult month. Noting that Spurs had got away with a few near-misses, Roy Keane observed of their style: “There’s an element of madness to it . . . if you’re not capable of doing it.”
But maybe more players are capable of ‘doing it’ than we think. For the first ten years of Lewis Dunk’s career at Brighton there were not many pundits hailing him as one of the best ball-playing defenders in English football.
People only started to do that once he had coaches who asked him to play that way. Just because past generations of players were discouraged from taking what were then seen as unacceptable risks does not mean that the current generation should be bound by the same inhibitions.
After 24 goals in five Sunday matches, the Premier League is currently averaging 3.15 goals per game. The post-1992 record over a full campaign is 2.85, set last season. The last time the scoring rate in the English top division was this high was 1965-66.
What happened after that? England won the World Cup with the ‘wingless wonders’ and coaches became obsessed with defensive shape and organisation.
We’re now in a phase when coaches are looking for ways to maximise the size of the pitch on order to create more space to attack. The results – goalkeepers baiting the press, teams knocking passes around inside their own box, defenders running out to the corner flag to receive the ball – look to many people like madness.
But only the most miserable of these could deny that it’s been a lot of fun to watch.