Mark Holmes was impressed by Tottenham on Sunday but says both Everton and Stoke City have major issues that need resolving.
TOTTENHAM THE LEAGUE’S OUTSTANDING TEAM
While making his predictions for the rest of the Premier League season in his Daily Telegraph column, ex-Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp declined to mention his former club when discussing the likely destination of the title.
It is a ‘two-horse race’ between Manchester City and Arsenal, according to Redknapp, with Spurs ‘most likely’ to finish fourth, behind Manchester United.
Bitter or just realistic? It’s open to debate, but Spurs’ performance at Everton on Sunday certainly not did not hint at a team which is likely to fall away any time soon. Mauricio Pochettino felt it was a case of two points dropped rather than one gained, which may well be true on a weekend which saw City, Arsenal and United all win, but the Lilywhites’ performance was in many ways the most impressive of the four.
Having won both of their games over Christmas, Pochettino’s men totally dominated the first half at Goodison Park, conceding completely against the run of play but equalising on the stroke of half-time through a wonderful Dele Alli goal having earlier struck the woodwork twice.
The object of football, of course, is to score more than the opposition, which Spurs couldn’t manage, but they left at least this observer convinced that they are capable of a top-three finish. In Hugo Lloris, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertongen they have the best unit in the league; in Alli they have, at least on form, the league’s best box-to-box midfielder; and in Harry Kane they have one of the best three centre-forwards. And Christian Eriksen isn’t even at his best.
The key for Spurs, like their rivals, will be in keeping their key players fit. In central defence and up front at least, their lack of quality back-up could prove disastrous if Pochettino does not strengthen this month and injuries occur later in the season.
But that is just prophesying. Right now, based on recent performances, they are the outstanding team in the Premier League.
MARTINEZ YET TO FIND RIGHT EVERTON BALANCE
While it was Spurs attracting attention for their performance at Goodison Park, it was also interesting to see Everton approach a more defensive approach to battle their way to a point.
I suggested immediately after the game that Roberto Martinez could find his job under threat come the summer if Everton do not significantly improve in the second half of the season, but the Spaniard deserves credit for attempting to solve the problems of a team with the worst home defensive record in the league.
“We have been conceding goals cheaply at home and it was something we had to rectify,” Martinez said.
“We had to defend better at home – it has not been good enough and cost us a lot of points. Today’s performance showed we are ready to be stronger defensively.”
Unfortunately for Everton, while they were much better defensively, it was not until the latter stages of the game, ironically after a seemingly defensive substitution by Martinez which was booed by the home crowd, that they offered much of a threat themselves going forward. Their goal came out of the blue; otherwise they were largely camped in their defensive third, with Romelu Lukaku desperately short of support.
In resolving a problem at one end of the pitch, Martinez created a different one at the other end. Phil Jagielka will make an enormous difference when fit enough to partner the exciting but raw John Stones, but the onus is also on Martinez to find the right balance that enables Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and Ross Barkley the freedom to attack without the team’s defensive shape being compromised.
STAR STOKE TRIO SAVING BEST FOR BIG GUNS
After Stoke City followed up a comfortable 2-0 win over Manchester United with a thrilling 4-3 victory at Everton over Christmas, there were suggestions that Mark Hughes’ side could challenge for a European place this season.
It was not and is still not a ridiculous claim – after taking only three points from their opening six games in the Premier League, Stoke have claimed 23 in the resulting 14, form which, if maintained for the rest of the campaign, would earn them 62 points, the same as Liverpool got in finishing sixth last season and only two less than fifth-placed Tottenham managed.
Even after their weekend defeat at West Brom, Stoke are only four points off fifth spot. And Hughes prides himself on his team’s tendency to improve in the second halves of seasons.
However, the setback at The Hawthorns was a further reminder of the major problem the Potters must overcome if they are to seriously capitalise on the struggle of the established elite. They are simply dropping too many points against sides around and beneath them in the league.
Crystal Palace, Watford and West Brom have all won at the Britannia Stadium so far this campaign, while Sunderland and now Albion again have beaten Hughes’ men at home. Since the opening day of the season, Stoke’s only other defeat was at Arsenal.
That game at Emirates Stadium aside, Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan and co. have wreaked havoc playing on the counter attack against the Premier League’s leading lights, but they are not turning it on when the spotlight is off. It must leave those who watch the side only occasionally scratching their heads about the Potters’ inconsistency.
Neither Arnautovic nor Shaqiri successfully took an opponent on at West Brom, while Bojan did so only once. Stoke as a team managed only seven take-ons, having managed 12 against both United and Everton.
The key to beating defensive outfits is to run at them, to dribble past players and force others to leave their positions to cover, creating space. Yet Stoke’s star trio aren’t doing this against the West Broms of the world.
It was the same story in their last defeat, to Palace, when Arnautovic, Shaqiri, Bojan managed only two successful dribbles between them having managed 13 in their previous home game against Manchester City.
It is, of course, easier to run past exposed defenders at pace than those set in their position with cover around them, but Stoke’s star trio need to take more responsibility against the league’s less glamorous sides, otherwise Hughes may be forced to adopt in certain games the more rudimentary approach that earned Tony Pulis yet another win against his former club at the weekend.