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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Spurs lose to Man City again in WSL – but they’re on the right track

When Tottenham Hotspur conceded a sixth goal in the 59th minute away against Manchester City in November, heads dropped. Belief was sucked out of the team.

For large parts of that game, Spurs panicked when City’s press suffocated them. They were disjointed and lacked communication. Celin Bizet and Grace Clinton were guilty of jumping out of the press, opening up passing avenues for City. The dominoes began to fall and Gareth Taylor’s side sliced through Spurs’ gaping holes.

Spurs struggled to deal with City’s threats on the wing and Bunny Shaw was almost unplayable as she hit a hat-trick. It was a steep learning curve for the team and Swedish manager Robert Vilahamn, who had never seen the frightening pace of Lauren Hemp in the flesh. It was a humbling lesson.

In the reverse tie on Sunday, Spurs got off to the worst possible start when centre-back Amy Turner turned Hemp’s cross into her own net in the ninth minute. Clearer communication between Turner and goalkeeper Barbora Votikova would have prevented the situation.

“That goal loses energy for us,” said Vilahamn. But he was impressed with Turner’s reaction — she did not let the mistake define her game. Vilahamn is not concerned by his three centre-back options of Turner, Molly Bartrip, who was very proficient, and Luana Buhler, who is returning from injury.

Lauren Hemp and Molly Bartrip (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Some nervy moments from Spurs followed. Captain Bethany England said: “Keep the ball, don’t panic,” as her team failed to string passes together. But City did not capitalise and Spurs did not capitulate. With Martha Thomas and England leading the line, they became more cohesive in their press and worked themselves back into the game.

Thomas had chances: a well-timed through ball from Clinton set her up, but she missed the target, while a narrow offside call ruled out her equaliser.

“We get chances, good chances, so we just need to be even sharper,” said Vilahamn.

Spurs reduced City to four shots on target and an expected goals value (xG, a measurement of the quality of chances created) of 0.68.

Clinton, on loan from Manchester United until the end of the season — negotiations to make her deal permanent will have to wait until the summer — was one of Spurs’ brightest sparks. The 20-year-old played Spurs out of trouble, was combative in her duels and matched England team-mate Chloe Kelly. At times, however, the gap between midfield and attack was too big and Clinton lacked clear passing options ahead of her.

Spurs tended to give the ball away too easily when they regained possession and needed to make better decisions about when to counter-attack and when to keep the ball. That is a recurring theme of this season.

There were some jittery moments when City continued to pummel crosses in. Shaw also made life difficult for Spurs’ centre-backs with her diagonal pressing runs, which cut off a clear passing angle back to the goalkeeper, forcing Votikova to hesitate at times, but, for the most part, Spurs kept Shaw, Hemp and Kelly quiet in the first half.

Two January signings were in the starting XI. Charlotte Grant, who joined from Swedish club Vittsjo, performed well at right-back in the absence of Ashleigh Neville, who picked up an ankle knock on Saturday. Amanda Nilden, who signed from Juventus, performed satisfactorily on her first league start, especially given she is joining from Italy’s Serie A, a league of inferior quality, and had not played for over a month.

Hemp’s prowess, however, showed in the 51st minute when she bore down on three defenders before slipping the ball to Shaw, who fired the ball into the back of the net.

Spurs held their own, though, and did not roll over easily like they did last time. They stayed committed to their style: playing out of City’s press and being brave on the ball. That is difficult to maintain under pressure from a well-oiled team like City, who have gelled as a unit over the years.

The overall feeling from Spurs, however, was one of frustration given they gifted City such an easy goal so early on, but the progress from a 7-0 to 2-0 defeat is clear. Spurs have some missing pieces to their jigsaw, but they are building a strategy that takes time.

“On a good day, we can beat them,” said Vilahamn, who is in his first season in the WSL. “But I want to be (at a point) where we can beat them every time we play. So we still need to improve.

“We are on a journey and we are not there yet to compete with the best teams in this league. Next year we will be more ready.”

(Top photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

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