The reverse of this fixture was played under different conditions. Back in October, Bournemouth fizzed with energy at Dean Court and were actually one of the last sides to match Tottenham physically. Spurs, perhaps after underestimating their opponents, took on water down by the coast and listed badly that afternoon, but were ultimately just resilient enough to return to London with a goalless draw.
In the five months since, though, Eddie Howe’s players have suffered through a barren winter. A recent flurry has allowed them to accumulate enough points to be considered almost safe from relegation, but the desperate energy used in battling back past West Ham, defeating Swansea and holding Liverpool to a draw at Anfield has come at a cost. They’re running on vapour and staggering towards the summer sun.
Tottenham are in a different place. Their off-season recruitment may have been meagre, but Mauricio Pochettino has nevertheless preserved his starting eleven’s freshness. His rotated full-backs are still knifing up the pitch and his creative minds are still whirring; their latent energy likely won’t be enough to snatch the Premier League title, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
It was a game which, in its early stages, mimicked Tottenham’s recent win over Watford. Bournemouth, evidently keen to challenge the perception that they’re in holiday mode, were all hard running and discipline in the opening fifteen minutes. But, just as it had been for Watford, the opening goal was their truth serum: minutes after Moussa Dembele had thumped Spurs into the lead after a corner drifted to the back post, Heung Min Son drifted beyond the visiting defence and drilled a shot under Artur Boruc.
This pattern isn’t coincidence, Pochettino presumably intends it to be this way: his clenched fist celebration after the second goal was a reaction to a gameplan well executed. Spurs blitz early and relentlessly at White Hart Lane, pushing their opponents to the floor and kneeling on their chest when they’re down.
At this point of the season, football changes. By the time the frost thaws, most ambitions have either been realised or relinquished and so games tend to become an exercise in making an opponent quit; score the first goal, bristle with intensity, or do whatever’s needed to convince the other side that it isn’t quite worth expending the extra 5% needed to be truly competitive.
This is the quality Spurs have been infused with. While the players are running as if it’s still September, their manager screams and hollers from the touchline. Pochettino, among his other qualities, is accomplished at keeping his team honest and ensuring that, even if in a position of relative comfort, they’re never allowed to feel completely at ease.
The overall aesthetic can be overwhelming. Opposing players face a formidable challenge on the pitch, but that’s amplified by the sensory experience itself: the manager frothing in his technical area, demanding more and more, and even the supporters – once so reflexively afraid of even the mildest danger – expecting goals to tumble from every attacking move.
It’s true, some sides are a soft touch at this time of year, but don’t necessarily assume that to be apathy of their own creation. More often, that’s an attitude informed by what stands in front of them. When Bournemouth looked across the ring on Saturday lunchtime, the saw Pochettino’s primed fighters, muscles twitching and eyes dancing. Quite understandably, they didn’t want to leave their stool.
Tottenham were quick to kill the contest on Saturday. Having taken a 2-0 lead into the dressing room, they wasted little time in making it three after they re-emerged, with Harry Kane snatching possession in the area and finishing past Boruc. Again, a telling blow. Eddie Howe will have reminded his players of their responsibility at half-time, perhaps convincing them that a goal in their favour could change the game. A deflection, a set-piece, a slip: keep going, keep going.
But they walked up the tunnel, onto the pitch and straight into another Spurs body shot, taking the air from their lungs and belief from their hearts.
Talking to the media after the game, Howe conceded that “Tottenham were everything (we) expected them to be” and that furthers the notion of a reputation reinforced – and of a team with a growing obsession for maintaining their standards. It’s a developed habit. Pochettino spoke afterwards about the lessons learned from 2015/16 and how this season began with an emphasis on mentality. This, then, is perhaps the product of that focus: these continual demonstrations of psychological strength. Spurs behave like a truly dominant team now and appear to have left their psychoses in the past; teams that were once banana skins are now cannon fodder.
By the time Vincent Janssen added a fourth, his first from open play in the Premier League, the game had been over for a long time. Kane, Eriksen and Alli had all been replaced and applauded from the field, departing for the ice baths and Wembley in a week’s time. Within that lay another description of just how greased Spurs’ gears are: they are not scrambling for points, nor fighting until the shadows of full-time for victories, but rather getting their work in early and efficiently, before sheathing their tools and moving on.
Those are the layers which made this mundane win impressive. These individual Tottenham victories don’t really belong in isolation, but rather as part of a long sequence within which their personality has been definitively shown to have changed.
They continue to march. To where, we’re not yet sure, but you know them by their drumbeat and the scars they leave on the countryside.
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