Sunday 18 November 2018

Spurs must show they are still able without Kane

Harry Kane picked up a hamstring injury against West Ham which rules him out of today’s
game against Manchester United. Photo: Getty Images
Harry Kane picked up a hamstring injury against West Ham which rules him out of today’s game against Manchester United. Photo: Getty Images

Brian Kerr

The clocks go back this weekend, another harbinger of the darker, colder nights to come. In six months, they will switch again with the promise of warmer spring and lengthening evenings.

Not everyone adheres to the tradition.

In Arizona, where the perpetually imposing Grand Canyon guards against the tooth of time, there is no such concession to the changing of the seasons.

At this early stage, Manchester City also seem to be operating within their own time zone, their near-flawless progress in the Premier League unlikely to be upset despite what is traditionally perceived as a tricky trip to West Brom.

This time last year, they had enjoyed an equally impressive opening to the campaign before Celtic pricked their bubble and Spurs burst it. Suddenly, all that irrepressible momentum was lost.

Such a recurrence looks less likely this time around given the elaborate strengthening in defence which has allowed freer rein to their attacking game.

At lunchtime today, the two teams best-placed to challenge them will seek to advertise their readiness to rein in the rampant leaders, when Spurs visit Old Trafford to face Manchester United.

There will be a contrast of styles; in management as well as football, although perhaps not as stark as some might assume.

Certainly, Mauricio Pochettino transmits a much more serene and smiling facade than the often grouchy and grumpy Jose Mourinho.

Benign But beneath that benign exterior beats a passionate Latin temperament; there is a quiet but determined ruthlessness about everything he does but in public he is always supportive of his players.

With Mourinho, it always seems to be about him and already he is making everyone aware of his disinterest in establishing a dynasty at Old Trafford; Paris beckons next.

It is as if he likes to remind employers how lucky they are to have him; then again, his remarkably consistent collection of titles offers some justification for his heightened opinion of himself.

Last season, he tempered his antics and restricted his sniping at other managers; he had enough on his plate as it was as the club struggles to re-establish its recent eminence.

He was clever to target the Europa League as the club's only route into the Champions League, the minimum requirement for a club of such stature.

But this year we have already seen signs of that edginess at United this season; having declared his trust in a squad depleted by injury, defeat to Huddersfield exposed them and the manager departed dramatically from the script.

You suspect a draw would suit City best here today, therefore it is up to one of today's combatants to make a definitive statement of their ambition.

Historically, United would always have been favoured to elbow their way into the picture but that landscape has changed dramatically, and swiftly, of late.

Now it is Spurs who seem much more capable of announcing themselves as the only side capable of reeling in Pep Guardiola's men.

And yet Spurs were also well-placed in the last two seasons to challenge for the title and, of those far superior opportunities, the inability to rein in Leicester City will cause nightmares for the club's supporters for years to come unless they win something soon.

For all the sepia-tinted reflections of the glory years and their faith in the fundamental values of good football, the harsh truth remains that their trophy cabinet has remained stubbornly locked for too long.

And, even though United supporters might scowl at the style of football they have played since Alex Ferguson retired, they have still retained their ability to win trophies, albeit the main prizes have eluded them.

Spurs have not won anything, yet.

Wednesday's Wembley wobble, two goals up and cruising against a vulnerable mix of struggling West Ham starters and reserves, will have dented confidence, as well as removing one of their four trophy targets.

In the recent past, indeed, Spurs would have been viewed as a mere stepping-stone to success by a United side who would never have feared them and, indeed, would have cherry-picked some of their best players - Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov - to buttress their own dominance.

Is the tide changing?

Eric Dier has been courted by United; more significantly, if we are to believe everything we hear, their manager, Mauricio Pochettino, was also coveted before Mourinho was handed the keys to Old Trafford.

Some supporters might prefer the Argentinian but Mourinho has some credit in the bank because he has already demonstrated he can win silverware.

The manager remains committed to Spurs, as do Chrstian Eriksen, Harry Kane and Dele Alli. Again, only for now.

The trade-off between Pochettino and his boss, Daniel Levy, would seem to be quite transparent - we'll keep our best players but only if there is tangible success.

Well-paid

The players, already aware of how well-paid their colleagues are elsewhere, are also keen to translate promise into prosperity; otherwise they may revert to their familiar role as a selling club, with Kane following the well-worn path of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale to not only earn more cash but to win more trophies.

They do look better-equipped now than at any stage in recent years; sadly for them, City have yet to stumble in the league. If they do, Spurs must be ready to pounce.

Against Real Madrid and Liverpool, Pochettino's positive intentions bore fruit; the enterprise in the Bernabeu, when he surprised many by partnering Fernando Llorente with Harry Kane, earned a valuable point.

Spurs have earned much credit for having the best starting 11 in England but that has implied a lack of depth; however, against Madrid, they fielded a midfield without Moussa Dembele, Victor Wanyama and Alli.

Although there have been a few mis-steps in the transfer market - Vincent Janssen comes to mind - they have recruited well in other areas and they are now developing options in every position.

Against Liverpool, with a significantly altered line-up, Son Heung-min coming in to add energy, they preyed on familiar vulnerabilities and seized the maximum reward.

Harry Winks has graduated from a player you worried was the latest English-born meteor to be hyped beyond the reach of his talent to being something more substantial; asked to play a holding role against Liverpool, he was more than competent.

Spurs have always been a club that prides itself on flair; either Latin (Ardiles and Villa) or English (Hoddle and Waddle), sometimes a dash of Gallic (Ginola). They looked great but others won all the trophies; they still must shake off that tag.

The footballing tradition remains. A midfield of Winks, Alli and Eriksen, none of whom could be classed as giants, are the kind of lads you would see knocking it around in a seven-a-side up in Railway Union of a summer's day.

They remind me of the tanner ball players of yore; the street boys who could control the small bouncing rubber ball from whatever angle and at whatever speed it hit their feet.

Dave Mackay, one of Spurs' finest players, used to carry one of these balls around in his pocket on the streets of Edinburgh as a young fella; six pence was a fair whack of pocket money so you learned how to keep control of it on the road because it might be a while before you were allowed to get another one.

Spurs are more tactically cute now; as the last fortnight has shown, they are not reluctant to play the ball quick and long from back to front, confident that one of Kane, Llorente or Son can hold it up and develop play from there.

They still retain a wish to dominate possession; but they are now more comfortable sitting in and countering than before, as they were forced to do against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley and at times against Real Madrid against Liverpool.

United have been less spectacular though they have remained mostly solid until a rude awakening by Huddersfield.

They got a disproportionate amount of flak following the goalless draw against Liverpool when they were again accused of betraying the club's proud tradition of attacking football, a feeling heightened by the limited approach in Europe against Benfica, when a goalkeeping error handed them the away win.

Against Liverpool, they did admittedly reinforce their midfield, as well as deploying an extra full-back to mind Philippe Coutinho but that didn't necessarily translate into a reluctance to have a go.

They have generally been much easier on the eye this season, notwithstanding the fact they have predominantly encountered sides from the lower half of the table; the width and pace provided by whoever they deploy at full-back, along with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, has injected their play with much more dynamism.

Nevertheless, viewed through the prism of the last fortnight's league form alone, there should only be one result today.

After all, Spurs hammered Huddersfield and Liverpool, scoring four each time and conceding just once; against the same opposition, United managed a goalless draw and then lost to the newly-promoted team.

The key to winning this game looked like it could boil down to the two main strikers and their battle with the goalkeepers.

The news that Kane will be missing has dominated the build-up once the news broke yesterday.

Guardiola's jibe about them being a "Harry Kane" team does them a grave disservice; they are much more than that yet, as the midweek defeat showed, they remain a lesser team without him, particularly in defensive set-piece scenarios.

Correct Today's result could prove him correct. Let's just say you would be less confident of them winning now that his hamstring injury has proven to be as serious as suggested.

Llorente is not as mobile as Kane but he has an excellent touch and is very efficient at linking play. Majestic in the air, Spurs need to provide the crosses that he thrives on.

Lukaku's 71 goals in three seasons kept Everton in touch with the leading lights and he has now given United a focal point lacking since Wayne Rooney's decline as a serious force in the number nine position.

He is strong and powerful, with the pace to run in behind defences and he is also a target man for crosses. But he still has much to prove.

There is a suggestion he remains a flat-track bully but his record of 15 goals in 58 appearances against top six clubs compares favourably to Kane (16 in 30), particularly given he was in a team operating on a slightly lower level.

He still needs to confound some doubters, though.

At United, he hasn't always got the service to match that which Kane enjoys but he does benefit from the distractions to opposition defences caused by Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini; however, both of whom are missing.

Spurs have more variety from their forward players in deeper position even without Kane.

These sides also have the most consistent goalkeepers in the Premier League, despite the occasional tendency towards eccentricity.

David De Gea, although not as spectacular as Hugo Lloris, has consistently kept United in respectable league positions.

Already this term he has kept seven clean sheets in the league from nine games; Lloris (5 from 9) has done so in a side whose approach leaves them more vulnerable defensively that United.

Damage If Kane's absence proves significant, Mourinho's inability to field the aforementioned Pogba and Fellaini duo may be key too.

The Belgian has become a key man and Mourinho will welcome his return; he did spectacular spoiling damage when United won this fixture 3-0 two seasons ago.

Even without such physical strength in midfield, United can still rely on Nemanja Matic to provide sufficient protection of the defence to allow a more attacking approach than in their four recent away games.

Historically, United would have always fancied this fixture, usually because the teams coming up from London would be fancying themselves a bit too much.

Statistically, this is the least productive venue for Spurs; United have only lost to them here twice in 28 years although Spurs did win here in 2014.

Nonetheless, for all their recent upheaval, United have won the last three fixtures at this ground and their supporters will be keen to maintain that trend.

Both sides are progressing with relative ease in the Champions League so they can place all their emphasis on this match.

With Chelsea looming, United can't afford to slip up. In reality, they need four points from these two games to stay in touch at the top.

If not, their City rivals may disappear into the distance, perhaps leaving Mauricio Pocchetino and his men the only potential candidates to halt their progress.

Something has to give in this clash of management ideals, between Mourinho's pragmatic ability to eke out big results and Pochettino's desire to forge a winning style of play that is easy on the eye.

Manchester United v Spurs,

Live Sky Sports, 12.30

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