Sheffield United’s George Baldock seals draw against limp Tottenham

Sachin Nakrani at Totttenham Hotspur Stadium on 9 November 2019

For Tottenham Hotspur this proved to be a case of one step forward and two steps back. After Wednesday’s 4-0 victory over Red Star Belgrade came a result and a performance to suggest that all remains unwell with Mauricio Pochettino’s men. They were outfought and outplayed by a Sheffield United side who left north London with much to cherish but also a sense of injustice given this proved to be another occasion when VAR made its presence felt in maddening fashion.

The visitors thought they had cancelled out Son Heung-min’s 58th-minute goal when, on the hour, David McGoldrick converted Enda Stevens’ cross at the back post. There appeared nothing wrong with the strike but then came that now common uncertainty and dread. Referee Graham Scott had his finger to his ear, the large screen said the goal was being checked by VAR and then, after a delay of 3mins 47secs, came the verdict – no goal. Why? Because Jonathan Moss, the VAR located at Stockley Park, deemed John Lundstram’s big toe had been offside in the build-up. Yes – big toe.

Or perhaps it was his right arm. Frankly it was hard to tell given the lines that were drawn on the VAR-related footage of the incident and while the decision may have been correct it ultimately did little to take away from the feeling that rather than improving football in this country, the technology is leading to its slow death.

Firstly, it was not clear that any part of Lundstram’s body was ahead of Eric Dier – the last man. On the image tweeted from the Premier League’s official account, Dier’s left shoulder and knee appeared to be playing the midfielder onside as he collected a pass on the right flank. And even if they were not, should the goal have been disallowed given the phases of play that followed Lundstram’s eventual cross, namely Dier’s clearing header, John Fleck’s pass to Stevens on the left and, finally, his delivery to McGoldrick? All in all it was a mess – neither a “clear and obvious” error on the assistant referee’s part and, given the long delay, another use of VAR that temporarily but most definitely sucked the life out of what was an absorbing encounter.

Son Heung-Min wheels away to celebrate his opening goal against Sheffield United.
Son Heung-Min wheels away to celebrate his opening goal against Sheffield United. Photograph: Sandra Mailer/REX/Shutterstock

Chris Wilder was phlegmatic in the aftermath but having been among the Premier League managers who met with Mike Riley, manager of the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL), on Thursday to discuss VAR, he also expressed confusion over what would have been McGoldrick’s first Premier League goal.

“When is the reset?” he said. “It’s gone down the right, John’s crossed it, it’s come back out and we’ve then attacked down the left. So where does it reset to go again? That’s not clear. That length of the stoppage also doesn’t do anybody any good. It affects the game and that’s a disappointing aspect of it.” Asked if he was tired of talking about VAR, Wilder replied: “100%”.

Instead he was keen to praise his side for their display here, and rightly so. The visitors were excellent throughout, playing with typical resilience in defence and fearlessness in attack and, ultimately, it was only right that they did equalise on 78 minutes when George Baldock’s cross evaded everyone and landed in the the net. And yes, it was also subject to a VAR check.

The draw means United remain undefeated away from home since their return to the top flight. That is some going for a side tipped at the start of the campaign to make an immediate return to the Championship and they would have taken even more from this game had McGoldrick’s goal stood or Lundstram, who was outstanding throughout, been more clinical with a couple of chances in the first half.

For Tottenham this really was a bump back to earth after their impressive showing in midweek. Nine of the players who started in Belgrade also did here but, unlike then, they lacked cohesion and fluidity. Passes regularly went astray while in defence the hosts looked uncertain. Even Son’s goal – his eighth of the season – was fortunate given the South Korean was only able to strike the ball through Dean Henderson’s legs because of a loose backpass by Stevens. It is now five Premier League games without victory for Spurs and, on this evidence, their form is not necessarily going to improve after the international break.

“When you don’t win you are disappointed,” said Pochettino, who could also be without Tanguy Ndombele for some time after the midfielder was withdrawn at half-time with a suspected groin injury. “We did not start well and when you assess the game, a draw was fair.”

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