Tottenham Hotspur clawed their way back in to the top four with an unspectacular but uncompromising display against a typically dogged Brighton & Hove Albion. The visitors gave their all and were in turn given full respect by their hosts, but a wonderful fluke from Serge Aurier and a Son Heung-min header late in the second half ultimately left them coming up short.
Chris Hughton’s best-laid plans went awry thanks to a cross that went under the bar; Aurier’s looping ball from the touchline evading the fingertips of Matt Ryan in the 40th minute. It was the game’s decisive moment. Up until that point Brighton had largely kept Spurs at arm’s length. But they had expended a lot of energy trying and, in the end, a 2-0 scoreline felt about right.
“Yes of course, a bit of luck helps a lot,” Pochettino said after the match. “You know that when the opposition is so close and so deep and want to play only to defend it is not easy. I think the team created a lot of chances and deserved to score before, but that is football. I am so happy, very pleased for the victory and then the performance.”
Pochettino insisted he was not criticising his opponents. “I am not going to complain about how another team plays,” he said. “I need to think about how to help my players, how to help them to make the right space.”
It appeared, however, that he had altered his approach to try to crack the Brighton nut. In the first half set-pieces were rarely taken directly, and were instead pushed to the edge of the box for shots or shorter, faster crosses. In possession, too, there were more crosses and more shots, an apparently determined attempt to force deflections which might knock the Brighton defence momentarily out of shape.
When it came to the opening goal, nothing could be done because it was not deliberate. It sprang out of a moment of wonderful skill, Aurier fooling José Izquierdo with a feint before driving his cross up over Ryan and into the far post. Son’s second came in the closing moments of the match, a stooping header at the near post from Christian Eriksen’s free-kick. Harry Kane hit the post with his own dead ball just minutes before that but had Tomer Hemed done better with a close-range effort in the 70th minute, itself the result of a deflection, the game might have panned out very differently.
Chris Hughton’s team now have just two points from the past six matches but they still find themselves in 13th position with home games against Burnley and Watford next.
“We’re a newly promoted team and we went through a really good period,” Hughton said. “Now, results-wise, we’re in a difficult period.
“What we have to accept is that this is going to happen in a season and what defines you is how you come through it. Hopefully we’ve seen enough positives tonight to take forward.”
For Spurs, the positives were the energy of Erik Lamela, who lasted 74 minutes on his first start since last year, and the physical determination with which they went about their task.
They will need all that and more on Saturday when they travel to the Etihad Stadium to face the record-breaking Manchester City, but Pochettino was in typically blithe mood when asked about the challenge (although notably less so when asked how Dele Alli had felt about being left on the bench for this match).
“Look, I am so positive,” the Tottenham manager said of the Manchester City game. “I am a positive person, I am so happy because we won and the three points are so important for us.
“What is going to happen on Saturday? Who knows. We are going to enjoy it because it is a fantastic challenge. We are going to play the best team in England this year and one of the best in Europe. And we are going to go to Manchester thinking we can win.”