by Rachel Cohen (19/3/23)
Above: Tottenham Hotspur come together after their huge win over Leicester City in midweek. Photo: Spurs Women.
Sometimes you have to lose a lot of games to properly relish a win.
And Tottenham Hotspur fans waited a long time: nine games or 136 days.
Spurs’ last win – that eight-goal false dawn at Brighton – was back on the 30th October. Rishi Sunak had that week taken office as Prime Minister. England had not yet exited the men’s World Cup on penalties. They hadn’t even touched down in Qatar.
After Brighton, Tottenham lost and lost and lost again. They lost at Brisbane Road, at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, in Manchester, Liverpool, Reading, and Birmingham. There were a lot of losses. A lot of slow dejected train journeys home.
I have elsewhere talked about the 9-game losing streak that resulted in Rehanne Skinner’s departure, and Vicky Jepson taking over as interim head coach. The edited version is that before Christmas, Spurs could not score, going five games without a goal. More recently the problem was defending: three times Spurs took the lead in games to then be pulled back. Along the way, there were mistakes, poor passing, and a raft of fitness problems.
And then on Wednesday, Leicester City at home. A glorious, wonderous 1-0 win.
In truth, it was a messy, ungainly game. Both teams needed the points. The first half was cagey. Not a lot of free-flowing football on display and neither team created clear-cut chances. Leicester perhaps looked more controlled.
Notwithstanding the change in management, the Spurs side that started against Leicester had just one change from the team that started the previous game. What had changed, however, was that against Leicester, every Spurs player on the pitch looked up for the fight.
It is not for nothing that Leicester have kept clean sheets in three of their five games since the Christmas break. Following their own nine-game losing streak at the start of the season, the club swapped managers and during the January window strengthened, bringing in, among others, the impressive 19-year-old Ruby Mace at defensive midfield and Bayern Munich loanee keeper, Janina Leitzig. Leitzig is in the 99th percentile of keepers for crosses stopped and the 95th percentile for save percentage, and goals conceded against expected goals conceded. In other words, it was going to take something special to beat her.
And Beth England’s second-half goal was special. So was Drew Spence’s trickery in the middle of the park to get clear of three players and find Rosella Ayane in space. Spence is a player who can drift in and out of games. But in this game she was there, her close ball control on display, the map of her touches showing her influence across the pitch.
So, Spence passed to Ayane. And then, in the most unlikely of redemption arcs, Ayane turned provider. Over four relatively fruitless seasons, Ayane has elicited more groans than cheers from watching supporters. Indeed, across her first 56 games for Spurs, she managed just three goal contributions. But now, in the last three games alone, Ayane has equalled that tally (with one goal and two assists, the second in this game).
What came as no surprise to anyone is that Bethany England was the goal-scorer. Since arriving at Spurs, England has bagged four goals in five WSL starts. This, her last and, as she described it, “one of the most important” in her career is undoubtedly the most important since her arrival at Spurs.
It also stands alongside England’s solo effort against Manchester United as a thing of beauty. Against United, she picked up the ball on the halfway line. This time the Lionesses’ attacker received the ball from Ayane further up and on the left. She carried it goalwards, cutting across at the top of the box, and then launched the ball. When she did it was far enough out that there was time to admire the flight, and coo as the ball bent into the far corner of the net. Take it all in.
Then the realisation. England’s roar drowned out by the screams of the sparsely-spread 300 fans who had made it to Brisbane Road on a rail strike-hit Wednesday evening.
After that Spurs had more chances. Celin Bizet rounded the keeper but couldn’t find the target. Ayane’s shot went over. Kit Graham’s went wide. And England shot again, but this time a tame effort, straight at Leitzig. Spurs were on top now, but Leicester were not out of it.
The game went on. Eventually, the clock ticked down through five unbearable minutes of injury time. I reassured myself: “It’s okay. Even if they score now, it’s enough. Say it ends 1-1, at least we’ll get a point. A point would be okay. It would end the run. It would keep us above Leicester in the league table.” So goes the beleaguered fan’s pessimistic reasoning.
But Leicester did not score. Spurs did not concede. The first clean sheet in the WSL since Brighton. In her post-match interview Bethany England said “First and foremost today our goal was, bodies behind the ball and keep a clean sheet. Whatever comes from that afterwards is a bonus.” And that was what happened.
Players, including England, dropped deep to defend or collect the ball. They put their bodies on the line. Kerys Harrop made a ridiculous game-high 10 clearances – most of them finding a Tottenham player in space. Molly Bartrip’s goal-line clearance came just seconds before Spurs’ goal and was as important as England’s strike in determining the outcome. Tinni Korpela was a calming and commanding presence, making saves and claiming the ball without fanfare and, as the minutes ebbed away, slowing things down, being ‘clever’.
And then, finally the whistle.
Whereas the last league win at Brighton back in October had offered up a diverse palate of pleasures with four goals a half, in this game there were just two massive releases: the goal and full-time.
When it was over the emotion was palpable, as players, staff and fans realised the run had ended.
Spurs moved from two to five points above Leicester. And while a win does not guarantee WSL safety – another three points are probably needed for that – a win was necessary. For the mood. For confidence. And because without it there was a real possibility of quietly sliding into relegation.
So where next? There are lots of very good players in the Spurs team and a few excellent ones. But in the season so far, they have too often created ways to lose. Maybe now they will start finding ways to win. If they do, and if winning becomes a habit, it may start to mean less but I think I could live with that.
More immediately, Spurs’ next game is the North London Derby. Last season Spurs took their first point off Arsenal. Will this win act as the springboard for them to repeat or better that achievement? We can only hope so.
This article was originally published on: https://spurswomen.uk/