Tottenham Hotspur started 2021 how they built their stock at the end 2020, with a controlled performance nullifying their opponents attaching threat and triumphing off the brilliance of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.
A 3-0 win over Leeds United was predictable in its manner if not the result outright. But however well Marcelo Bielsa’s team progressed up the pitch, giving Spurs plenty of headaches in the opening exchanges, the disparity between attacking quality was enough for Jose Mourinho to start the new year with a comfortable three points that takes his side back into the top four.
The lead up to this fixture has been far from restful for Spurs, even with something of a bye with the postponement of the midweek fixture against Fulham. That was tempered by unexpected controversy when Spurs had to address photographs showing Giovanni Lo Celso, Erik Lamela and Sergio Reguillon (along with West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini) breaching the government lockdown rules by gathering together with friends and family over Christmas.
Spurs condemned the trio in a statement which said they will be dealt with internally. Yet there was Reguillon in the match day squad as one of nine substitutes – Lo Celso and Lamela are currently injured – suggesting maybe the club were not taking the breach seriously enough.
There will be more to emerge from this story, such as when the gathering actually took place and what the Premier League make of Spurs’ reaction to it after restating their belief in the Covid-19 protocols in place and confirming there are no plans to pause the schedule despite the rising cases in and outside of football’s bubble. Saturday saw Fulham-Burnley become the fourth match of the season to fall victim of a spate of positive tests, and the third this week.
Still the show goes on, and with it came the comfort of a match playing out as expected. Perhaps, for a full dose of narrative, Leeds could have compounded the home side’s misery by making the most of their opportunities that came there way before Ezgjan Alioski brought down Steven Bergwijn on the very edge of the box in the 27th minute.
It was Alioski who had the first meaningful effort just five minutes in, pummelling the side netting at the near post when, in hindsight, a ball across to one of three teammates would have been the higher percentage play. Indeed, just 10 minutes later Leeds had squandered three opportunities, all through their typically engaging play that for all of Spurs’ powers of absorption should have led to an opener.
Alas, the arrival of the spot-kick, instigated by Harry Winks intercepting one of many awry passes out from the back and playing into Bergwijn whose turn into the penalty area was always going to catch a defender out of joint. Kane went down the middle for number 17 of the season.
The second owed more to craft, though this time Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was the one to retrieve high in the final third and offloading to Kane. The skipper pulled wide and produced a perfectly weighted cross to the front post. Son got the step on Stuart Dallas and Spurs went into the break with a 2-0 lead.
More frustratingly for Bielsa was the concession of the third from a set-piece. Just a couple of weeks ago he refuted suggestions they are more susceptible than others from this mode, countering with the fact that the two goals that elicited this line of questioning – both in a 2-1 defeat to West Ham – were scored by two of the league’s best in the air in Tomas Soucek and Angelo Ogbonna.
And yes, there is an argument to say Toby Alderweireld belongs in that bracket. But his near-post flick on five minutes into the second half, which Illan Meslier got behind but not before it crossed the line, was just his first in 17 games for Spurs.
Leeds tried to add gloss on the scoreline, though lacked their opening verve, and Spurs looked the most likely to increase the game’s tally. Bergwijn failed to cap off his industrious performance with a goal when one-on-one, while Kane’s desperation for more saw an attempt to lob Meslier from halfway sail comfortably over the bar.
There came a late blemish as the match petered out when Matt Doherty was sent off for two bookable offences. As both sides took their foot off the gas, Doherty clumsily went in late on Pablo Hernandez, treading on the Spaniard’s foot with a late challenge that drew the second yellow card. Nevertheless, it was an ideal start for Spurs as they look to re-establish their title credentials in 2021.