Tottenham 2-1 Brighton (Sarr 61’, Johnson 90+6 | Gross pen 17’)
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR STADIUM – This was the vindication of a player who, in recent weeks, spent hours on the training ground working on his positioning at the far post. The ball fizzing awkwardly, it would have been just as easy to blaze it over. Instead Brennan Johnson provided Tottenham with a luxury they have been lacking for months: a match-winner off the bench.
Son Heung-min had been desperate to start. He too warmed the bench for over an hour, sweating off fatigue and Asian Cup semi-final disappointment as Spurs floundered.
You could be forgiven for assuming Son’s return would be the game-changer in Tottenham’s top-four push. Yves Bissouma’s comeback from Afcon could be just as decisive. It is now down to Ange Postecoglou to dictate the battle between Bissouma and Rodrigo Bentancur at No 6.
After one minor slip in possession, the scream was audible from Bentancur as he nudged the ball out of play in a tussle with Danny Welbeck. But it is two later incidents which will define Bentancur’s contribution – his role in the penalty Spurs conceded, and his valour in the build-up to Pape Matar Sarr’s equaliser.
Postecoglou does not like to be drawn on what he believes to be Bentancur’s best position, insisting terminology should be “getting away from eights and sixes”.
Yet Brighton’s penalty gave him plenty of hard evidence, and the Uruguayan’s wrestle with Pascal Gross near the edge of the box before Micky van de Ven brought down Welbeck was not the only occasion in which he struggled. Spurs, as a whole, spent the first half sloppy in possession.
By the time Bentancur had robbed Billy Gilmour in the middle to break away for the equaliser, Postecoglou had already decided on his double substitution. Off came the Uruguayan, along with Timo Werner, and on went Son and Johnson. Bissouma followed shortly afterwards.
The timing was unfortunate for Bentancur, who had just shown where he operates best. There had been some intermittent interchanging with Sarr in the deeper role, particularly after Bissouma and Bentancur had swapped some whispers coming out of the tunnel for the second half. It looked like a pep talk.
Bissouma was not ready to start after his international hiatus at Africa Cup of Nations, with Mali knocked out by Ivory Coast on 3 February. It was reported he contracted malaria during his time at the tournament. While the substitutions initially killed Spurs’ momentum, Bissouma did make several crucial interceptions to stop Brighton countering and setting Welbeck away.
There have been so many iterations of the central midfield since the New Year, with Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg also playing roles. Hojbjerg is expected to leave this summer and Skipp is unlikely to displace Bissouma, Sarr or Bentancur, but the No 6 dilemma will need to be addressed.
It is difficult to judge Bentancur’s form without recalling the eight months he spent on the sidelines with an ACL injury. When he returned in October, to a rapturous reception from fans, he was soon injured in a rash tackle by Aston Villa’s Matty Cash. It was feared he could miss up to three months but he returned after just four games.
There is some method to the madness in Postecoglou refusing to confine Bentancur to one position, given the fluidity with which he wants Tottenham to play – but as a protective cover to Cristian Romero and Van de Ven, it does not work. Bissouma’s discipline was called into question when he received his third ban of the season before Christmas, but going forward it seems likely he will return the first choice as a No 6.
“We have that capability now of putting guys on who can make an impact,” Postecoglou said. “I thought they did today and it also keeps guys on their toes if they’re not performing and gives me some options.”
Injuries and suspensions have been a derailing force all season. There may be a tough decision ahead but rarely has Postecoglou had the indulgence.