Tottenham's scrappy win over Palace shows new-found squad depth
LONDON -- If Tottenham are to balance the challenges of this season, Mauricio Pochettino must reach into the depths of his squad. Sunday's 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace, while far less glorious than beating mighty Real Madrid, demonstrated he has such capability.
With Dele Alli suffering from a hamstring problem, Harry Kane dulled as he returns from a similar muscle injury and Christian Eriksen smothered by Palace manager Roy Hodgson's tactics, it was Son Heung-Min who scored the winning goal.
The South Korean, now the highest scoring Asian in Premier League history after his 20th strike overtook compatriot Park Ji-Sung, is a pretty useful fourth wheel to call upon. With his 6-foot-0 frame, hard-work ethic, pace and a shooting efficiency evidenced by Sunday's excellent curling strike, Son is an archetypal Pochettino player.
The Argentine manager, far more restrained by finance than the rest of the Premier League's top six, has now been able to build a group that give him options to call upon. In the last two seasons, his starting XI could have been quoted by anyone with a passing interest.
Previous certainties are now less clear, which means competition is thriving. Who now are Pochettino's first-choice full-backs? Serge Aurier and Danny Rose, who faced Palace and both struggled a tad, or Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies, so admirable during Wednesday's 3-1 defeat of Real Madrid? Is Mousa Dembele as indispensable as Spurs' ball carrier as he was during Tottenham's title challenge of the last two seasons? The rise of Harry Winks suggests not. Meanwhile, Davinson Sanchez has slotted right into the back three after signing from Ajax for £40 million this summer.
Still, Pochettino would probably not have wished to forage as deep into his personnel as he did this weekend by playing third-choice goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga. Both Hugo Lloris and Michel Vorm were indisposed, so Gazzaniga was thrust into action and gave a performance which embraced both excellence and near-disaster: almost conceding a penalty in the opening moments by rashly taking out Mamadou Sakho, being rounded for Wilfried Zaha for Palace's best chance of the match, but also making a couple of fine saves.
Yet Gazzaniga's constant encouragement of his defenders showed one reason why Pochettino recruited him: the former Southampton player is, like so many of the Argentine's players, an enthusiast. Though much of the credit for Gazzaniga's weighty contribution was offered to Tottenham's goalkeeping coach Toni Jiminez. "He does a fantastic job with all the keepers, including the younger ones, because today we had Alfie [Whiteman, just 19] on the bench," said Pochettino.
Such depth and strength of shared purpose is required. Not every match can be a pyrotechnic and emotion-wringing occasion as playing Real Madrid. On occasions when the reigning European champions come to town, Wembley becomes an ideal venue, its stands crackling with atmosphere, but Sunday -- a midday fixture which took third billing behind Chelsea vs. Manchester United and Manchester City hosting Arsenal -- was a tepid engagement in which the crowd had little to feed on.
Played in a blinding winter sun that unsighted spectators and gave rise to tentative play from both sides, Palace did well enough to be disappointed not to get a point, but Tottenham got the job done. In a week where the club made worldwide headlines, where Alli's two goals against Real pushed him up the pantheon, Pochettino needed the players he had available to fight through the hangover from such a high.
"It wasn't the best performance but the team was very professional and we fought," said Pochettino afterwards, relaxed and happy that his players had recovered so well after losing 1-0 at Manchester United last week.
Kane would be all but irreplaceable at any club, but when he is as off his game (as he was for much of his 77 minutes on the Wembley pitch on Sunday), then Tottenham must look to others.
That was where Son came in, taking his chance well, and where Zaha, by contrast, did not. Had Pochettino got his way in the summer, Zaha might even have been starting ahead of the Korean for Tottenham, but once he signed a new contract at Selhurst Park, interest dulled.
To be a Pochettino player, full commitment is a minimum, and neither the manager nor chairman Daniel Levy are in the business of chasing players who do not wish to commit to their project. Pochettino has reached a point where he has enough depth to continue the club's upward trajectory, but there will be tougher tests ahead.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.