There are really three ways of interpreting Tottenham’s start to the season. One is that a team playing this modestly, with such an overreliance on the counterattack, is due a reversion to the mean before long. Another is that their results are an impressive indication of resilience and confidence, and once performances catch up and new signings gel, they will be a formidable presence.
But of course there is a third theory: that when you have one of the world’s greatest strikers, under the tutelage of one of its greatest strategists, the conventional laws of footballing gravity do not necessarily apply. Antonio Conte’s teams have always prided themselves on taking the shortest and most expedient route from goal to goal. And if that means simply giving the ball to Harry Kane, then it will certainly do for now.
Two more goals from Kane gave Tottenham another win here. Again, it was a flawed and often scrappy performance that relied on a little defensive fortune. By the same token, Tottenham could easily have scored more: the front three had 12 shots between them, including Kane’s second-half penalty which was saved by Dean Henderson. Nottingham Forest had most of the ball, most of the territory and pretty much all of the noise. But they didn’t have a Golden Boot winner.
And yet for now these are golden days on the banks of the Trent, a time of fresh horizons and fresh hope, before the grim realities of survival kick in, when the days are warm and the new signings pour through the door like old friends: 18 of them already this summer, and there were moments when it felt like all of them were on the pitch at once. In the stands, owner Evangelos Marinakis surveyed his realm like a proud king. On the pitch, Henderson wore a baseball cap to block out the evening sun.
Forest looked remarkably cohesive, too, for a squad that still has the feel of a speed-dating event. There was plenty of possession and plenty of enthusiasm, as Steve Cooper’s team got at Tottenham the way most teams will try to get at Tottenham this season: flood the midfield, quickly spread the play, pressure the penalty box with crosses and shots from distance. Lewis O’Brien looks an immediate upgrade in midfield. Morgan Gibbs-White, a tearaway tornado of a forward with a £42.5m price tag and a seemingly inexhaustible battery, had a fine full debut.
Where they occasionally suffered was in transition. Conventional defending – 10 men behind the ball, mark your zone, keep the spaces even – is the sort of stuff a decent coach can teach in an afternoon. But when the play is broken and the threats are multiple and every fraction of a second counts, they still look a little startled. Witness the way Kane was able simply to gallop past Harry Toffolo and Steve Cook to receive Dejan Kulusevski’s pass and score the opening goal: a grubbing low shot into the bottom corner.
It was Tottenham’s first attack of the game, and pretty much their last of the half. They are not yet good enough or organised enough to control games high up the pitch or starve opponents of possession. And so for long periods they sat dangerously deep, subsisting on long punts up the wing, as if engaged in some quirky training drill in which you’re not allowed to use the centre circle. Chances came and went. O’Brien let fly from distance. Gibbs-White had a shot from about 20 yards. Early in the second half Ryan Yates put a free header just wide.
Not long after that, Kane and Cook both went up for a high hanging cross from Ivan Perisic. Cook, outmuscled and overpowered, touched the ball with his flying arm. And of course, Kane doesn’t miss from the penalty spot. Only this time Henderson sprang forward from his line and dived at full stretch, before whirling his baseball cap around as if it were a bloody scimitar. Filled once more with hope and purpose, Forest surged forward. The atmosphere was about as good as it is possible to conceive.
Yet at the same time, the red hurricane was blowing itself out. The substitute Richarlison won the ball from Neco Williams on the left wing and teased a delightful cross over for Kane, who finished the game with a simple header. There was still time for Forest to knock at the door, for Tottenham to squander more breakaways, for Richarlison to enrage the crowd with a little showboating and get a cathartic body slam from Brennan Johnson. But the meat and bones of this match had already been decided. Tottenham, improbably, are third in the Premier League. Nobody really knows what it means yet.