LONDON — Three thoughts from Tottenham’s 3-2 Premier League victory over Everton at White Hart Lane.
1. Tottenham the clear “best of the rest” with Everton win
They might be too far behind to deny Chelsea the title, but Tottenham are at least establishing themselves as the clear “best of the rest.” Their 3-2 win over Everton on Sunday put them seven points behind their London rivals — at least until Antonio Conte’s side face West Ham on Monday. It would take a fair collapse for Spurs to overhaul them, but stranger things have happened.
This was not the most complete performance and Tottenham made it more difficult for themselves than it perhaps should have been in the closing stages, when Romelu Lukaku and Enner Valencia pulled goals back for Everton, but a brace from Harry Kane and a delicious late flick from Dele Alli was enough to seal the points for Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
The second was Kane’s 19th goal of the season, nudging him ahead of Alexis Sanchez and Lukaku as the Premier League’s outright top goalscorer. It’s also his 15th goal in the last 13 games. The suggestion — agreed with by the man himself — that Kane is among the best strikers in the world is impossible to deny.
Tottenham took the lead in the 20th minute, when Kane was given time and space around 25 yards from goal. The Everton defence didn’t so much allow him to shoot as give him an embossed invitation, send a car to pick him up and offer vol-au-vents upon arrival. Kane gratefully accepted, shooting low and with power, but it was still close enough to Joel Robles that the Everton goalkeeper should have saved it. He didn’t and Spurs were ahead.
Spurs then had a 10-minute spell where they dominated possession and could have scored at least once more, but did not manage to and for the rest of the half Everton were marginally the better side, without necessarily threatening Hugo Lloris’ goal excessively.
It was a different story after the break. Tottenham asserted themselves more effectively and doubled their lead after 55 minutes, taking advantage of a slumbering Everton side. Robles passed to Morgan Schneiderlin, who dithered and must not have been warned about the imminent, Mousa Dembele and Alli-shaped danger. A combination of the two forced Scheiderlin into a rushed and careless pass, the ball fell to Kane and he comfortably placed it into the bottom corner.
Everton got back into the game with 10 minutes remaining. Lukaku ran at Toby Alderweireld and the Belgium defender stumbled and slipped, which gave his compatriot space to shift onto his right foot and shoot low past Lloris.
But any hope of a point was snuffed out in stoppage time. Spurs won a free kick on the left of the area, which substitute Harry Winks dinked into the area before Alli slipped in between some absent-minded defenders and flicked cheekily into the corner of the net. Valencia forced home an even later second for Everton, but it wasn’t enough to snatch a draw.
2. Underrated Eriksen is never lazy, always smart
Christian Eriksen is curious player. Objective observation shows that he is a key cog in Tottenham’s side, offering a subtlety that Kane or Victor Wanyama or even Alli do not, a man with the imagination to pick holes in defences and create chances for his colleagues.
Indeed, he has 10 assists this season — nobody in the Premier League has more and only Gylfi Sigurdsson has as many. He has also scored five goals, perhaps a little light for someone who has essentially played just behind the striker for the last few months, but still a respectable total for a midfielder from 26 games.
And yet he can often give the impression of being peripheral, of being a player that a certain type of English fan has trouble warming to. There’s something about his body language that suggests he’s not keen on the age-old traditional “blood and thunder” that many in the stands seem to like. There isn’t much in this Spurs team for their supporters to get upset about, but he usually seems to be the first to receive their opprobrium.
A moment in the first half summed this up, when he chased a 55-45 ball that Leighton Baines had a slightly better chance of reaching. Faced with the choice of going for a ball he might not reach and probably getting wiped out in the process or simply stepping back and seeing what else he could pick up, he chose the latter. Cue howls of derision from the Spurs fans.
But this is just an impression. The idea of Eriksen as slightly soft, a player who doesn’t “fancy it” is false, as can be evidenced by his simple presence in this side. You do not become a key member of Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham team by being lazy or — god forbid — not pressing. Eriksen does all that, just in a slightly less obvious manner.
Eriksen just chooses his moments to be aggressive and press, unlike other, more obvious “all-action” midfielders. “If you are smart enough, you don’t need to run,” he said in an interview last year. And that’s Eriksen: never lazy, always smart.
3. Everton raise eyebrows with narrow approach
Eyebrows were raised when Everton’s starting XI was announced. In the last few weeks Ronald Koeman’s side have enjoyed success with a loose 4-3-3 formation, with youngster Ademola Lookman and Ross Barkley impressing on either side of Lukaku.
For the trip to White Hart Lane, Koeman left out Lookman and instead essentially played with five central midfielders — or, if you prefer, four with Barkley just ahead of them. There was an element of logic to it — when you’re facing Dembele and Wanyama, helped out by Alli and Eriksen, you need all the help you can get in the middle — but it also seemed to concede one of their great advantages and miss out on a chance to hurt Spurs.
The key weakness of Pochettino’s 3-5-2 system, particularly when Kyle Walker is asked to attack so much, is that there is space down either flank to exploit. With the previous 4-3-3, Everton not only had more width through Lookman and occasionally Barkley, but it also gave them more scope to press as high up the pitch as possible.
Spurs have had problems this season, particularly in Europe, with teams that harass their defence when they have the ball. Everton didn’t do enough of that, and the likes of Eric Dier and the excellent Jan Vertonghen were allowed to do their thing without much impediment. Koeman changed things towards the end of the game, but by that point the damage was done.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.