Spurs have options from the bench again – Postecoglou's hands are no longer tied
What a difference a bench makes.
For months this season, Tottenham head coach Ange Postecoglou has had his hands tied by a lack of options to call on in the second half of games. Even if Spurs desperately needed to change something, they would only have fringe players and youngsters sitting behind Postecoglou. That put them at a distinct disadvantage in a league where their direct rivals at the top of the table can always keep introducing established quality, chopping and changing until they have the balance right.
But Saturday afternoon against Brighton was thrillingly different.
As soon as the team sheet was circulated, it was clear that Spurs would be a different proposition. Son Heung-min and Yves Bissouma, back from international tournament duty, were among the substitutes. So was Brennan Johnson. The three of them even came on simultaneously just after the hour.
But no one would have expected an ending as perfectly emphatic as this.
In the sixth of six added minutes, James Maddison played the ball forward to Richarlison, who knocked it forward again for Son. Bursting forward down the left, Son played a perfect low cross and there was Johnson at the far post to score and win the game. The crowd erupted.
No fresh legs, no winning goal, no three points.
If Postecoglou had not been able to make those changes, he would have been left with the worn-out Timo Werner and Dejan Kulusevski in those roles, unable to turn that position of opportunity into a winner. Maybe Postecoglou would have replaced them with different players, ones with less experience or less ability, but then who knows whether they would have been able to execute like this.
Because no one should be in any doubt that Son’s cross was a brilliant piece of play. Running at full pelt, slightly off balance, he whipped the ball with his left foot around the back of the Brighton defence, curling it so it was out of reach of Pervis Estupinan but straight into Johnson’s path.
“It maybe looks simple,” Postecoglou said afterwards, “but that ball that Sonny plays, that’s a world-class player, in a clutch moment, finding the right pass. You can’t do that if you can’t bring him on, or if it’s somebody else.”
Son did not look like a player who had only just returned from an exhausting and frustrating Asian Cup campaign with South Korea in Qatar.
Even Johnson’s far-post finish was the result of him having the energy and drive to make the right run at the right time (something Postecoglou said they have worked on together). It was a very similar goal to the one the Welshman scored in the 3-2 win against Brentford here 10 days earlier, also as a substitute. The difference was it was Werner rather than Son who played the ball from the left on that occasion.
There have been times recently when Johnson has looked jaded, slightly worn down and low on confidence in front of goal. He had started 13 games on the spin since early November and it was beginning to take its toll. But perhaps counter-intuitively, the break from the starting line-up over the past fortnight has done him the world of good, taking the pressure off, giving him a rest, and also the platform to come on from the bench and cause some havoc.
The fact that Spurs now have Werner, Richarlison, Kulusevski, Son and Johnson to choose from for their front three positions — with Manor Solomon still on his way back from injury — puts them in a far stronger position for the last 14 games of the league season. Son will surely come back in to start next week against Wolves, but that will leave Werner as the game-changing option from the bench. If Johnson is promoted to the first 11 then Kulusevski is a brilliant option to hold in reserve too.
Even in midfield, Tottenham are now far stronger than they have been for months.
This was Pape Sarr’s first club start of 2024, having returned last week from the Africa Cup of Nations. He rewarded Spurs with a goal that only he could score, breaking the Brighton defensive line with an incisive run, receiving Kulusevski’s pass, and finishing after his initial cross was blocked. Postecoglou then replaced Rodrigo Bentancur with Bissouma, also freshly back from AFCON, and when Spurs needed a bit more control in the final 10 minutes of the 90 he threw on Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg for Sarr.
It makes a huge difference being able to tweak and re-tweak like this.
The strange thing about that triple substitution is that it felt for a long time that it had not worked, right up until the moment when it did.
Spurs were well on top when Sarr made it 1-1 but by making those three changes, especially taking off Kulusevski, they lost the control they had worked so hard to win. The game became more open and Danny Welbeck missed a great chance to put Brighton back in front. It almost felt as if Postecoglou had changed too much too soon.
But the longer you have someone like Son on the pitch, the likelier it becomes that he will do something special.
Maybe by saving up his decisive intervention until the 96th minute, he was just prolonging the tension and drama before he reminded everyone what they had missed while he was away. And now that he is back, Spurs can rely on his rare brilliance, his world-class skills delivered at top speed; not from the bench, but from the start every week. And his team-mates will become the players tasked with changing the game in the second half.
“I was putting on some good players, guys who can make an impact,” Postecoglou said. “They’ve got to do that. Especially in that midfield, front third.
“We’ve been pretty limited lately in terms of what we can do. I feel like with the squad we have for today, we do have that ability, irrespective of where the game’s at, to finish games strong.”
(Top photo: Mark Leech/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)