Only Tottenham could have played a worn-out, unimpressive game and trail 4-0 after 81 minutes, then mount a late comeback that very well might have resulted in an unexpected point.
With five minutes remaining, if Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s extra time curling attempt against the right-hand post had instead bounced in and made it 4-3, Ange Postecoglou’s visiting team would have gained the upper hand.
Spurs’ performance at the Amex Stadium would have been more than a haphazard, patched-up affair, and they owed a debt of gratitude to Guglielmo Vicario for his all-action goalkeeping showing, which kept the scoreline from growing significantly by halftime.
Tottenham’s late surge even the scores a little bit; in fact, they had more shots on goal (19 compared to Brighton’s 14), but only three of those were on target. Despite having a lower possession percentage (45%) and 379 passes compared to Spurs’ 456, Vicario had to make five saves compared to Jason Steele’s one.
The visitors struck the woodwork twice through Hojbjerg and Richarlison, with the latter having two attempts disallowed for offside. The hosts did have to make 29 clearances compared to Spurs’ 12. Even so, it would have been unfair to Brighton, who tore apart Tottenham’s shattered defense each time they broke through, with Joao Pedro being their main tormentor. Brighton struck the post through James Milner and had a Facundo Buonanotte effort disallowed for offside.
The killer was Pervis Estupinan’s goal shortly after the hour mark. Spurs had begun to regain some momentum in the match when Richarlison and Destiny Udogie missed opportunities with offside finishes. However, the Ecuadorian later returned from injury and produced a magnificent long-range shot that dropped into the far corner from 25 yards.
Tottenham ultimately fell up short of pulling off a stunning comeback, and as the last minutes passed, it was evident that they were frustrated.
Pedro took his time walking away, the South Americans giving him theirs. Emerson Royal shoved his countryman in the direction of the dugout, but Giovani Lo Celso—who had given away the penalty from which Pedro scored his second goal of the match—ran to the Brighton striker and covered his mouth to avoid being seen by the cameras while whispering something in his ear.
The 22-year-old was so enraged by what Lo Celso said that he shoved the Argentine back and away from him before turning to face the Seagulls’ assailant and stirring up the crowd. As the sight faded, Richarlison also yelled something from the Spurs bench.
It’s evident that the rivalry between Brazil and Argentina is still strong on the south coast, but Postecoglou’s team lost discipline once again on this particular night.
As delicate as Lo Celso’s quiet conversation with Pedro, Dejan Kulusevski received his fifth yellow card of the season for a shirt pull on Danny Welbeck in the Spurs box. In the Everton encounter, the Swede had acted similarly toward Amadou Onana, but he had gotten away with it that day. This will only help Lo Celso as he will miss Sunday’s match against Bournemouth.
After five months of play, Postecoglou’s players have already received seven different suspensions: two for Udogie, one for Cristian Romero, three for Yves Bissouma, and now one for Kulusevski.
In the midst of the club’s current injury issue, it has proven to be the most costly area that the Spurs players can control. Vicario’s run of saves was broken by penalties given to Brighton by Kulusevski’s grab and Lo Celso’s clumsy lunge on Evan Ferguson.
When asked about the first penalty, Postecoglou took the opportunity to criticize VAR once more and the length of time it takes to make decisions. However, he also brought up Lewis Dunk, the captain of Brighton, who made a late lunge on Kulusevski that resembled the high-flung challenges that have resulted in Romero and Bissouma receiving red cards in recent weeks.
“It was obviously clear and obvious because it only took him three minutes to see it on the screen and VAR picked up everything today except the one tackle which nearly cost me another player. So that’s their decision,” stated the Spurs manager.
“Look, fair to say we were looking a bit tired and lacked our usual sharpness, especially at the start of the game. We’ve been starting games well. I guess that’s understandable, we’ve been on this run for a while now and asking players to perform at levels,” the Australian continued when speaking about Tottenham’s performance that evening.
Our physical style of play is really demanding, and today we seemed to be a less-than-optimal team. Brighton is a strong team, and they exploited that. In the end, all I can ask for is that the players give everything they have, and that is all I know.
“Everything they’ve got the players are giving me. I can’t ask any more of them. We’re in the position we are because of enormous efforts of a really small section of our squad and they did it again today. They’ve shown that all year. Whatever they’ve got, they’ll give. That’s all you can ask for.”
In his post-match interview, however, captain Son Heung-min demanded more of the worn-out team.
“It is a very disappointing performance. This is not how we’ve approached the season. This performance was nowhere near the level we want to play at,” he stated. “We acknowledge our shortcomings, but since the games are approaching quickly, it is not the appropriate moment to assign blame to one another.
Rather than discussing the conclusion, we should focus on the first half and the early stages of the second half. We are aware from the start that we must play that way. We must learn the lesson once more and move on. The Premier League is a very competitive league, and we will suffer if we don’t play well in the final fifteen minutes of every match. This needs to be a major wake-up call.
“Before they scored the goal we had good pressure and a couple of actions where we could have done better. Brighton were more clinical than us and then the penalties caused big problems for us. We have to be more focused on the penalty, it is a big detail. The first half was not our game and not us. We have to take a big, big lesson.”
In a competitive top five, Tottenham is only six points behind the leaders of the Premier League and still has a little lead in fifth place. However, they can’t afford to go too far, thus the club needs to increase Postecoglou’s numbers.
An agonizing defense
On Thursday night, Tottenham’s defense appeared just as it has always done: four full-backs trying and failing to play as a cohesive unit throughout the game.
It was the fourth time the four players had played as a line together, and in those three games, they had already given up nine goals.
During the first half, there were moments when it felt like watching a north London team trying to contain Chelsea with nine men while fielding the same number of players as Brighton, who were also beset by injuries.
As a matter of fact, since the beginning of November, Tottenham and Nottingham Forest have combined to concede 19 goals in the Premier League, and over that same time, Tottenham’s xG against has been the highest (21.4).
To put things in perspective, Spurs have the third-highest xG in the league at the other end of the field (1.82 goals per game), and they have surpassed that mark with 2.05 goals per game. Their xG is 2.15 at home, which is the second-highest in the league, and 1.49 away, which is the sixth-highest.
Defense injuries have been crucial. It’s undeniable that the team’s defense would suffer greatly without Cristian Romero or Micky van de Ven, not to mention the issues that would arise from losing both of them.
Ben Davies has performed brilliantly in his job as a substitute center-back; he demonstrated this on Thursday night when he added a fantastic header while on the run at the other end. However, he needs a natural center-back to play alongside him.
In a totally new role, Emerson Royal gives it his all and makes six tackles, three clearances, and one interception, but he loses all of his aerial duels. On top of his three tackles, one interception, one clearance, and the late headed goal from Pedro Porro’s cross, Davies instead won five.
Emerson was chosen over Eric Dier ostensibly because Postecoglou wants Tottenham to play their fast-paced passing style from the back when the opposition is applying pressure. In certain circumstances, Dier feels less at ease and is more prone to hit a long diagonal ball in an effort to escape difficulties.
The 29-year-old also inherently causes the defense to drop deeper around him than Postecoglou would want, possibly because he is aware in his subconscious that he will not be able to recover from a high line.
Emerson had performed admirably as a left-back against Everton, so there was probably some motivation to keep him in the lineup to reward his efforts. However, the supporters are still puzzled as to why young center-backs Ashley Phillips and Alfie Dorrington have yet to receive a single minute of playing time.
Both of the 18-year-olds are capable of passing the ball under duress, and Postecoglou has a track record of giving young players an opportunity if he believes they are ready. That may be the key: despite both of them being regularly mentioned on the bench and his suggestion that they would be if necessary, the Australian manager has not yet been persuaded, based on what he is witnessing in training, that either player is actually prepared to play in the Premier League.
During his Wednesday remarks, Postecoglou stated of Phillips, “He’s training now, he’s ready, he’s available. He’s there, mate, so if the opportunity comes we’ll give it to him.”
For a while now, both insiders and outside of Tottenham have held Dorrington in high regard.
“He’s been in the squad the last three or four weeks. Alfie and Jamie [Donley], who got on, they are training with us and part of the first-team so they have a chance every day to show what they can do and be involved,” Postecoglou said in response to a question regarding the England U19 international earlier this month.
“At the moment we are really thin on defensive numbers so maybe he will get an opportunity over the next couple of weeks.”
Neither young defender has yet to be given the opportunity, and supporters of Tottenham are watching other teams that are dealing with injury issues and giving teenagers a chance to succeed.
Spurs have faced Newcastle, whose 17-year-old Lewis Miley is making waves, and Everton, who have a young center-back in Jarrad Branthwaite, who started playing for them as a teenager and is now a 21-year-old established first team player, whom Spurs greatly appreciate.
The first goal of the game on Thursday night was scored by Brighton’s eighteen-year-old midfielder Jack Hinshelwood, who fired a rocket past Vicario after Pedro had dribbled past feeble challenges from Emerson, Richarlison, and Hojbjerg to set up Hinshelwood, who had infiltrated the area undetected and unmarked by Udogie.
The teenager’s goal came after four starts for him. Hinshelwood is a teammate of Dorrington, Phillips, and Donley from the England U19 squad.
Since Postecoglou’s team is already the youngest in the Premier League in terms of average age, it is always a tricky balance to determine when to deploy a young player for fear of stunting their growth and confidence if they are put in too early and struggle.
While Dorrington has not yet played senior football and Phillips has only played eight Championship games with Blackburn from the previous season, it is true that none of them differs from Miley or Hinshelwood.
Naturally, Postecoglou would contend that it is more difficult to start a young center-back as the last line of defense than to give a player a chance higher up the field, but Donley hasn’t really felt that way despite his outstanding season with the U21s.
It’s hard to see how Donley could have performed any worse after watching Bryan Gil struggle to make much of an impact from the bench and send a late effort over. The playmaking forward, who turns 19 on Wednesday, was supposed to replace Kulusevski after Dunk’s lunge, but the Swede recovered and assistant manager Chris Davies sent the teenager back to his seat.
This is mostly a defense issue, though, and the defense must make some changes before the injured players return. Even though the four full-backs can handle Postecoglou’s desired workload of passing under pressure, it is hard to justify allowing three goals to be surrendered every game on average.
With such an unconventional backline, defensive coordinator Matt Wells can only do so much. Football.london questioned Postecoglou about how tough it was to get ready for defense when so many players were being pressed into round gaps in the backline.
It’s challenging. This entire run has been challenging. We’ve been under pressure for a very long time, and all we’ve done is try to keep playing. That’s what we’ve done, and the players’ tremendous efforts to perform tasks that are typically outside of their scope of work have only allowed us to be in this position,” the speaker remarked.
That’s all I can ask for, in my opinion. It’s impressive that the players gave it everything they had. Although we didn’t try our hardest, we didn’t succeed today.”
He continued, “I know I say I don’t make excuses but that doesn’t dismiss the enormous efforts of the players, not just today but through this whole period.” in reference to the final burst of activity, which included Davies’ headed goal. Even now, they offer everything they have. Even though we weren’t always as sharp as we have been, they gave this game everything they had physically.
“It wasn’t through the lack of trying and that’s what they were doing. Right to the end they were pushing. With every resource in them they were pushing to try to get something out of the game and it’s a credit to them. We are in that position through as much the players’ sheer efforts as our football.”
Both Udogie and Porro made an effort to contribute, the former with four crucial passes and the latter with three, including the assist for Davies. However, the inexperience of Romero in the defense and the haphazard nature of the backline have affected all of them, and both full-backs were occasionally at fault for Brighton’s goals.
The suspension of Yves Bissouma has also had an impact. The Mali international, who has one of the highest tackle averages per game in the Premier League this season, even when he’s not at his best, has lost his ability to shield the defense.
Oliver Skipp might take Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s position on Sunday to add more experience to the middle of the park. Hojbjerg did not give the backline the same confidence, even though he did get better as the game continued on Thursday.
In a worn-out squad, Postecoglou doesn’t have much to work with, but that’s generally when doors open and raw diamonds show themselves.
A couple advantages
While not many players got credit for their performance, a few will have gone home on Thursday night feeling that they had at least made an effort.
Once more, Guglielmo Vicario was far busier than either Postecoglou or himself would have preferred.
He denied Welbeck twice in the first half, the first after Brighton launched a fast break that left Porro and Emerson behind. The Brighton striker was denied in the second thanks to an incredible reaction stop made at close range.
Pedro’s attempt was prevented by the Italian a second later, but he was quickly overpowered by the might of Inshelwood’s unmarked attack. Later on, despite being sent off for the Brazilian’s penalty earlier, he made another stop in a one-on-one situation against the same player.
Vicario was incensed because Brighton’s player had so much room to set up and shoot, even if he was powerless to stop Estupinan’s incredible long-range effort. Pedro then sent the Spurs goalkeeper the wrong way from the penalty spot once more.
In the end, he gave up four goals, but if not for his flurry of outstanding saves in the first half, it could have been much more.
Alejo Veliz’s goal-scoring cameo up front was another plus. After recovering from the injury he brought with him from Rosario Central, the 20-year-old has had to wait patiently for his opportunity to play.
He spent about thirty minutes on the field on Thursday night, including the extended extra time. It was his longest run of the game, and it was evident how happy he was when he scored his first goal for Tottenham.
He owed it all to Dejan Kulusevski’s tackle, which forced Dunk to drag his studs up to his ankle, and Son Heung min’s deft, fast pass that found its way to the young Argentine.
Veliz went back to the center circle, hitting the air and screamed repeatedly, letting out all of his emotions when his scuffed shot bounced inside the left-hand post. Although there were worries back home about his readiness, he scored his first goal in the Premier League and for the club that had brought him over from Argentina, even though his team was behind 4-1. He did not thank those who assisted him at the time. It was hard to blame him for expressing his happiness.
After scoring his first goal of the season, Davies also punched the air in an attempt to rally his teammates and the supporters as an extremely unlikely comeback now seemed more likely.
Late in the game, Veliz produced another neat moment when he deftly deftly ducked under Jan Paul van Hecke’s low ball into the box, only for Dunk to slide in and block his attempt.
Following the match, Veliz wrote on Instagram: “It wasn’t the result we wanted but today is a very important day for me, I share this new achievement with my people, who are always with me. May it be the first of many more. God’s timing is perfect.”
James Maddison answered, “Well done, buddy! “Now more,” Emerson wrote, “Congratulations brother…to be continued,” and Lo Celso added, “Congratulations Tanqueee, may it be the first of many.”
For the time being, it was a goal that was widely applauded as a consoling effort, but Veliz wants to make sure that, as his teammates indicated, it was Spurs’ historic first goal of many.
If Postecoglou decides to start Richarlison on the left side for the FA Cup third round match against Burnley, or if he wants to give him a break after his back injury last week, Veliz may have a chance to play a bigger role. Son is expected to join up with South Korea following the Bournemouth match.
Dane Scarlett, a young academy product who impressed Postecoglou in the summer, can play starting on January 1 and will also be considered for the cup match upon his return from Ipswich.
In the next weeks, Lo Celso will be playing a larger role, beginning on New Year’s Eve when they take on the highly successful Cherries.
With the exception of the clumsy misplaced tackle on Ferguson, the Argentine had another excellent outing off the bench, managing two crucial passes, one dribble, one tackle, and one interception in his roughly thirty minutes on the field.
Due to Kulusevski’s suspension, Lo Celso will fill the void on the left side of the midfield trio. Postecoglou made it very evident that the Argentine midfielder had never been benched from the starting lineup.
“Due to his injuries, he left the team. It wasn’t a choice. “We’re going to have to make another adjustment there. He was going well when he got injured,” the Australian added. When Gio first appeared today, I thought he was good. When he debuted last week, he was excellent. It’s nice that he’s back in shape and available.”
Four and a half years after joining the north London club, Lo Celso’s major focus now is to stay healthy and put up the kind of steady performances that might ultimately establish him as a crucial member of the Postecoglou midfield.
Time to construct
Even for someone as cool-headed and emotionally stable as Postecoglou, there’s no denying the impact a disappointing loss has on a manager’s disposition.
The Spurs head coach discussed the importance of bringing in players early in the transfer window during his remarks on Wednesday. The January transfer window is quickly coming.
“With so many moving pieces, I’m not sure [whether we can]. Not only is it excellent for us that Romero is gone, but there’s an entire month left, so why not make the most of it and close our deal early?”stated the Australian.
It’s not like we’re going to sign someone and have them play right away, so if you can get them in early, you can ease them into training and our football philosophy. Perhaps they could.
“Yes, I would love to do something early in the window, but even me saying that puts a challenge on us—because other clubs know we want to do something early. If you leave it until the end of January, it might not be until the mid to end of February when they get up to speed, depending where they’re coming from, the league they’re coming from. So there’s a whole lot of moving parts.”
“You’ve got to play the game, we’ll see what happens but I’m hopeful it will be much earlier than the end of the window before we bring someone in.”
Postecoglou made it quite evident following Thursday’s game that anyone expecting the impending transfer window to drastically alter everything is going to be rudely awakened.
“This is where we’re at. Nothing extraordinary is going to occur during the January transfer window. Simply put, we must never stop building,” he stated.
“With this team, we have one window of opportunity to make changes and carry out new procedures. It’s a compliment to the guys that we are in this situation. Despite all the obstacles we’ve faced, we’ve merely continued moving forward, and we will continue to do so. In the end, it’s about forging a path that will get us to our destination, but we’ll see what we can do in January.”
Spurs are not typically involved in January deals this early. However, in previous seasons, they signed Dejan Kulusevski, Pedro Porro, and Rodrigo Bentancur on deadline day, and Arnaut Danjuma arrived just a few days before the last winter window closed.
The last time Tottenham signed a player before the end of a January window was in 2021, when they loaned Gedson Fernandes, a young Portuguese midfielder who was recalled by Benfica a year after making very little of an impact in the Premier League. No one joined in the 2021 window, while Steven Bergwijn arrived late in the previous one.
Prior to that, January transfers were even less common; if you exclude Dele Alli, who was immediately loaned back to MK Dons in 2015, Lucas Moura was the sole winter addition during Mauricio Pochettino’s whole five and a half-year tenure. Both Lucas and Dele joined on deadline day in 2018.
Postecoglou is therefore requesting that Tottenham break a long-standing practice. At least the recruitment of technical director Johan Lange, chief scout Rob Mackenzie, and head of football insights and strategy Frederik Leth, along with the continued involvement of Fabio Paratici as a consultant, has brought new ideas and planning to that department.
Since the summer transfer window, even before Postecoglou approved the sale of Davinson Sanchez, a center-back has been the top objective.
Spurs have held conversations with Nice regarding Jean-Clair Todibo, one of the top young defenders in Europe, but it will be difficult to persuade the French team to part with the 23-year-old when they are leading Ligue 1.
The 21-year-old Romanian center back Radu Dragusin of Genoa is attracting interest from other teams on the continent, similar to the Premier League players Lloyd Kelly and Tosin Adarabioyo of Bournemouth and Fulham, respectively.
This week, Postecoglou stated to football.london that he does not care if a new defensive addition mostly plays on the left or right side of a center-back duo.
“I don’t put as much stock into the left-sided or right-sided centre-back scenario, we just need another player in that position who can provide some more depth for us and the ability to change it up,” he stated.
Left- or right-sidedness won’t matter; what matters most is the profile and traits. At the beginning of the season, we didn’t search for a left-handed center back; Micky was the ideal center back. That being said, I would have signed him even if we had another left-sided player. It involves determining what is available by looking at the appropriate profile and qualities, then taking it from there.”
Hugo Lloris, who has been with Spurs for the longest time and is among the top paid players there, is currently in advanced talks to sign a free transfer to MLS team LAFC next month.
Though it’s unlikely that the Croatian will make a full recovery from his cruciate ligament injury until the last few weeks of the campaign, Tottenham will be hopeful that another high-paid injured winger, Ivan Perisic, may join Hajduk Split next month.
Though Perisic’s contract with Postecoglou expires in six months, he made an impression in the first few weeks and is reportedly eager to rejoin his home team.
The 34-year-old would need to agree to leave Spurs in the coming weeks if he wanted to play for Hajduk in order to be fit for the Euros the following summer.
When questioned this week about Perisic, Hajduk Split manager Mislav Karoglan responded, “I don’t know how his recovery is going after the injury, and the only thing I can say from my side is that I would like to have him in the dressing room whenever possible.”
The futures of Dier and Hojbjerg are still unknown, but for the time being, Spurs are hoping to have Micky van de Ven return for the match against Manchester United on January 14, with James Maddison following closely behind with Cristian Romero, Manor Solomon, and Ryan Sessegnon.
Physically demanding, as he has often acknowledged, the Postecoglou method is having a negative impact on a group lacking in players.
When asked if he would tone down his intense training sessions and style of play in the face of the issues, he said that he understood he would have to ride it out. The injuries started to pile up early in his Celtic career, not the least of which being six hamstring injuries in the first few months of his reign, leaving his team threadbare.
“No, that isn’t feasible. It is a process byproduct and a reflection of the team we aspire to be. “Games are coming thick and fast, but that’s the level we want to be at. I’ve been through it a number of times with teams I’ve taken over and the initial process is always difficult,” he stated at the time.
He went on to say of the hamstring strains: “It’s not a problem. Although it’s clearly something we want to address, it’s nothing new to me either. I kind of get how we play—I’ve done it in the clubs I’ve visited—that the beginnings are never easy.
People forget that many of these men didn’t participate in a preseason with us. We play and train differently, and it takes time for players to get used to that.
The one thing I’ve never done, and I won’t do in my whole career, is compromise the football team we want to be because we’re not quite ready to get there. They came in late, and we’ve been playing catch up the entire time.
“I’d prefer to kind of keep moving at the rate we are going, which means we will lose a few and have some casualties along the way, but I still think it is simply part of the process for us as a team as we attempt to mature into a specific type of side that plays a certain brand of football.
We’ll get better at preventing these kinds of injuries from occurring to our players, even though the scheduling of our fixtures makes it more difficult. We will cope with it; but, we will not compromise on the football we play or the way we prepare, since I am confident that these actions will ultimately lead to the results we seek.”
For Tottenham and Postecoglou, that is a benefit since he has been here before and knows what’s on the other side.
The Australian has always stated that there would be difficult times and setbacks along the road, but he is aware of what is ahead and believes that Spurs will go swiftly to the next phase if he makes two or three wise additions to strengthen his team in the coming weeks.