As Tottenham trudged off at half-time, 1-0 down to Brentford, looking desperately short of ideas, this felt like another frustrating game in their long Son-less winter.
Spurs have not been the same team with their captain away at the Asian Cup in Qatar, and the first half here seemed to prove it. Tottenham had spent the first 45 minutes running into Brentford’s highly-coordinated 5-3-2 system. They were crying out for something different.
But 11 minutes after the restart, Tottenham were 3-1 up and flying. The mood had transformed from tension to jubilation.
And in that brief timespan — it only takes a few minutes to turn a game on its head — the perceptions of these Spurs forwards were transformed. The players who did not register a meaningful shot between them against Manchester City here last Friday — Richarlison, Brennan Johnson and, most of all, Timo Werner — were now cutting Brentford to shreds.
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Werner got a standing ovation when he was taken off. Richarlison — who always wears his heart on his sleeve — looked deeply proud of his night’s work. He now has seven goals in seven matches in the league, comfortably his best run for Spurs. It was not just his goal that stood out here but his pressing and hold-up play, his overall confidence on the ball. They were Spurs’ two best players on the night.
By the end, the nerves of last Friday and even of the first half of this game, felt a very long way away. This victory felt like proof that Spurs can find a way to win without Son Heung-min. The last time they won a league game with neither Son nor Harry Kane in the team was over five years ago, a 2-1 win at Craven Cottage sealed by a Harry Winks stoppage-time winner.
At the cutting edge of it all tonight was Werner. He had more or less done what you would expect during his brief Spurs career before this game. His movement has been decent, darting in behind opposition right-backs, while never looking like threatening the opposition goal. At Old Trafford, he had a few openings but never looked confident. Against Manchester City in the FA Cup, he was shut out of the game but he did at least create Spurs’ only half-chance for Johnson.
Against Brentford, Werner, like Spurs, started well, released by James Maddison in the first minute, bursting down the left and forcing a corner via Ethan Pinnock.
But soon enough, Brentford turned the game into the one they wanted to play: slowing things down, catching Spurs on the break, defending deep in their 5-3-2. Spurs struggled to get the ball to Werner quickly enough and when they did, he found himself driving into a penalty area that already contained at least nine Brentford players.
Ange Postecoglou admitted afterwards that Spurs’ problem in the first half was that they didn’t get Werner good enough service, leaving him stranded out by himself. But in the second half, Spurs started with far more tempo and intensity, getting Johnson and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg on and moving Dejan Kulusevski back into midfield. And when Brentford switched off, Spurs were able to cut through them and take full advantage.
It started when Destiny Udogie drove forward through the middle of the pitch and quickly exchanged passes with Werner. And after surging past Christian Norgaard and Pinnock, Udogie buried his finish.
Tottenham were alive and Brentford had still not reacted. One minute later, they scored again with a goal that owed everything to Werner’s incisive speed. Kulusevski found Werner on the break and he raced into the space down the left. Rather than taking on the difficult shot, Werner pulled the ball across goal, right into the path of Johnson, darting in from the opposite side. It was precisely what Werner had been signed for.
In an instant, the German had been transformed. A few minutes later, Spurs got the ball out to him again and he ran straight at a back-pedalling Nathan Collins. Newly alert to the possibilities now inherent in Werner, the whole East Stand rose to their feet. When Werner forced a corner, the South Stand chanted his name. Not long after that, Richarlison scored the third after another Udogie burst down the middle; Brentford so scared to commit and risk leaving Werner isolated one-v-one.
Werner was the hero of the night. He got his standing ovation when he was taken off for Jamie Donley with one minute left. Many of the fans applauding him would have been unsure about Werner when he was signed from RB Leipzig — about his struggles at Chelsea, about his lack of goals over the last three and a half years. Many of those fans will have wondered whether he can really provide what they need in the absence of Son. Some may have asked whether Spurs could have done better than Werner in replacing Kane.
Those fans are still waiting for Werner’s first Tottenham goal but they did at least get a glimpse of the damage that he can do. Still, everyone is waiting to see how South Korea do against Australia in the quarter-final of the Asian Cup on Friday, and how much of February Son will miss. But regardless of when Son comes back, if Spurs want to make the most of the second half of their season they need the Werner signing to come good, even if he ends up as an impact sub. No one understands this better than Postecoglou.
“I thought he was great,” he said of Werner afterwards. “In the first half, we probably didn’t support him enough in that left channel, and he was a little bit isolated. In the second half, we got some better service to him.
“He’s a quality player, I think he’s proven at this level. And as he gets stronger and fitter and understands our game a little bit better, I think he’ll become even more effective. And I know there are goals in him as well that will come for Tottenham.”
(Top photo: Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)