Why Postecoglou laughed twice after Tottenham defeat, Son fury and a Hollywood star watching on

By Staff

This felt like classic Tottenham Hotspur and everything that Ange Postecoglou is trying to get the club away from.

Pick up a big result with a 4-0 win at Villa Park, full of positives and a great mentality, only to head across London six days later and put in the most disappointing performance of the season.

For the Tottenham supporters this was the opposite of Al Pacino’s memorable speech in The Godfather Part III. It was more ‘Just when they pull me back in, they throw me back out’.

Everything that was good about the display in Birmingham was missing at Craven Cottage. There was no intensity, no clinical edge and very little in the way of cohesion or discipline to a team that had previously lost only two of their away trips in the Premier League.

Ardent Fulham fan and Hollywood star Hugh Grant was at the game, fresh from his exploits as an Oompa Loompa in his most recent big screen role, and he got to witness his team win comfortably against a Spurs side that was more wonky than Wonka.

Postecoglou said Spurs were “careless on the ball” and “too keen to get forward” without the required conviction. It was a performance that bore all the hallmarks of a young inconsistent team, one that will have the odd bad day at the office but that thought won’t take the sting away from the timing of this timid and tired trip down the river.

READ MORE: Tottenham player ratings vs Fulham – Bissouma, Sarr, Maddison and Dragusin struggle in poor loss

READ MORE: Ange Postecoglou admits Tottenham may sign new centre-back and defends ‘tourist supporters’

Postecoglou was not having it when football.london asked why his players were unable to harness the momentum from the resounding victory against Villa.

“I don’t buy into that sort of stuff. It’s a different game, it’s a different challenge. It’s not like you start this game a goal up because you won last week. I think if you fall into that trap of thinking that what you did last week is going to help you this week it just doesn’t work this way,” he said.

“To be fair to the players, it’s the first time this year where I’ve felt, especially in the second half, that we just didn’t…we’re in the position we are because every week we’ve been really, really competitive in every aspect of the game and even in our losses I’ve felt like we’ve hit certain markers in terms of our endeavour and competitiveness and I thought that it was missing today and that was disappointing.”

Son Heung-min was even stronger in his assessment. The Spurs captain has been far more vocal about the team’s missteps since taking on the armband and he did not hold back after Saturday’s defeat.

“It is very disappointing and very frustrating. Everybody has to look in the mirror and say ‘it is my fault’,” the South Korean told Sky Sports. “It was not good enough. We didn’t put in the effort we have put in this season. The performance, the attitude was not good enough. Everyone needs a big wake-up call.

“In the Premier League if you are not ready you get punished. Aston Villa are an amazing team, but so are Fulham. If you are not giving 100 per cent, including me, you get punished. You don’t get three points for free. We had to put a lot of effort to get three points but we didn’t do it.”

He added: “This is two steps backwards. We now need to make a strong step forward. It is unacceptable, including me, it was unacceptable. We are representing Premier League teams, we are representing Tottenham Hotspur.

“This was not close to what we have been doing this season. It is very sad to watch this and to get a result like that. Also the fans don’t deserve this. They are coming here, after 4-0 at Villa, with positive energy and good vibes. Losing this way is very tough. The players seem very down, which is normal.”

Fulham deserve credit. While this was Spurs’ worst performance of the season so Marco Silva said this was the Cottagers’ best. They played well throughout and have previously turned over the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Brighton and played three tight matches against Liverpool, but it’s difficult to find a positive performance among the Tottenham players.

Cristian Romero was the best defender among them on the night with three tackles, three interceptions and three clearances along with blocking two shots, but as the experienced head, the World Cup winner was meant to be organising a backline that was all over the place at times.

Guglielmo Vicario saved Spurs a few times in the first half but conceded three goals on the night, the third one bouncing off the post and on to him before rolling across the six-yard box.

The Italian posted on Instagram after the game: “Not much to say, today we were not good enough. You deserve better from us. We will be back.”

Those two players were still probably the only two starting players who could walk away from Craven Cottage without feeling they were utterly dreadful. Despite still creating three or four very presentable chances, Spurs’ 39-game scoring streak in the Premier League came to an end.

The same midfield that was so effective at Villa Park was practically invisible six days on. Pape Matar Sarr and James Maddison were caught wandering far too often and their passing did not make their risks worth the attempt.

Sarr’s pass success rate was just 67.7%, the lowest of any outfield player starting the game, in an erratic display from the young midfielder, while Maddison’s only real highlights were a shot wide of the left-hand post in the first half that he should have got on target and a pass to Son that the captain sent over the bar.

The duo left Yves Bissouma exposed and alone whenever Fulham broke through the centre of the pitch and the Mali international is not in any sort of form where he can dominate by himself. His touch at times was poor and the confident marauding version of the player on display at the start of the season has seemingly been consumed by internal doubts since those red cards and suspensions, not to mention a bout of malaria ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Behind the midfield was a defence that looked like it had had its key ingredient taken out. Micky van de Ven’s pace allows Spurs to squeeze higher up the pitch and prevent opposition players from playing the ball around in their half.

Fulham had 16 shots at goal to Tottenham’s 14 and sent seven on target to the visitors’ five. Normally the opposition has the far higher amount of clearances made against Postecoglou’s men but at Craven Cottage the hosts needed to make only eight to keep their clean sheet while Spurs were required to make 20, plus six blocks to Fulham’s one.

Radu Dragusin came in for the hamstrung Dutchman and he brought the inconsistency of a new young player looking to find his place in the system and understand his team-mates.

At 22 he is the same age as Van de Ven but the Dutchman has spent eight months adapting to the English game. This was Dragusin’s first taste of a full match in a Spurs shirt and it showed in moments.

At times he showed the composure that will be his strength even after conceding goals and little got past him in the air. The centre-back is no slouch but nobody has the pace of Van de Ven, the fastest player in the history of the Premier League.

That meant Dragusin had to do more defending on the back foot and he was caught out a couple of times by the speed of Fulham’s play. He didn’t make a single tackle, although he did manage two interceptions and five clearances as well as blocking two shots.

The first goal before half-time came from a terrific curling ball from Antonee Robinson which picked out Rodrigo Muniz at the back post. The young Fulham attacker had found space in behind Dragusin and he finished clinically into the far corner. The Romanian quickly found that Premier League quickly punishes even the smallest of errors.

Fulham’s second goal came on the right-side of the box again, with Destiny Udogie rushing out to be easily dribbled past, leaving Dragusin to come across and leave space in behind for Sasa Lukic to divert Timothy Castagne’s low cross in with his knee.

The third goal again came from the right side of the penalty area eventually. Calvin Bassey’s shot hit the left-hand post and then Vicario and the ball bounced across the face of goal where Muniz beat Dragusin to the ball and forced it in.

It was a tough full debut for Dragusin but he will get better as his understanding of his team-mates’ movement improves. On a couple of occasions he rushed across to help Udogie when there was little need, leaving both players stranded out wide and a gaping hole in the backline between them and Romero. All three speak Italian but at times none looked like they shared a common language.

Not every player starts in the way they will carry on though. For those who do like Van de Ven and Udogie there is a Pedro Porro, who will still have the occasional nightmare about his debut against Leicester last season.

Postecoglou did not want to focus on any players in his post-match analysis.

“I don’t think it’s a game to talk about individuals, because whether it’s Radu’s first game or Sonny’s 500th, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “What matters is that as a group we just didn’t reach the levels we need to in order to compete so for us, there’s obviously a lesson in that. It’s part of our growth.

“You’ve got to feel, all these things I keep saying, they’re not firsts but they’re things you’ve got to go through if you want to get growth and it’s how you react to them and that’s our challenge now.”

At Craven Cottage, neither Porro nor Udogie impressed down the flanks. The stats-based rankings of Whoscored had the right-back, who has just earned a spot back in the Spain squad, a score of just 5.96 and Udogie marginally better at 6.02. Only Sarr (5.72) and Brennan Johnson (5.81) received lower of everyone on the pitch.

Udogie was practically walked past by Alex Iwobi for the second goal and neither full-back offered much threat going forward.

Neither though did the forwards themselves. After a run of eye-catching performances, Johnson struggled to make an impact other than a weak first half shot at goal and two key passes which included a second half ball across the face of goal that was bewilderingly touched wide by substitute Timo Werner with most of the open goal to aim for.

Werner was actually quite bright when he came on, running at Fulham’s backline but that was a horrendous miss and it was the Tottenham fans to the right and behind the goal that were more in danger from his shots than Bernd Leno was.

In the second half, some of the travelling Tottenham faithful held up a banner with the plea ‘Save our seniors’ in response to the recent season ticket news from the club. They were almost taken out by a sliced Werner effort. There is no evidence to suggest that chairman Daniel Levy asked the German to do so.

Werner was not the only attacker with his shooting boots laced together. Son put in one of his most ineffective displays of the season in front of goal with only Maddison (43) and Sarr (39) having less touches of the ball than his 45.

The 31-year-old South Korean tried to make things happen, with four dribbles, one key pass and two off target shots, but he struggled with three unsuccessful touches and poor service around him.

Dejan Kulusevski is in danger of inheriting the Lucas Moura trait of running past one or two players only to keep the ball and career into another. The Swede can be devastating when he makes good decisions, as shown by being involved in three of the four goals at Villa Park, but when he’s a split-second off with his choices so he can look lumbering and predictable.

It was the substitutes who gained a little credit, albeit after Fulham had taken their foot off the gas. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg looked better in the anchorman role than Bissouma had done all day but can Postecoglou start the Dane against Luton in a fortnight’s game when he is clearly not part of the future at the club?

Bentancur was bright in his cameo while Werner, misses aside, was a more dangerous presence than Johnson and then there was Richarlison, who offered some threat and probably should have done better with the chances that fell his way.

The Brazilian has 10 goals to his name in the Premier League this season and has been vastly improved following that pelvic surgery but it is still difficult to see him as the long-term successor to Harry Kane through the centre of Tottenham’s attack rather than simply an option.

Postecoglou said on Friday that Spurs would be looking at all areas of the squad to improve this summer and a number nine will be right up there in the plans.

Ivan Toney will be courted by plenty of clubs as he reaches the final year of his contract and his price tag drops. Various Premier League sides are looking at Feyenoord’s free-scoring Mexico international Santiago Giminez, with his 21 goals in 24 Eredivisie matches this season and two goals and an assist in four Champions League matches.

Among others, Spurs might even look at Fulham’s 22-year-old Muniz, who has come out of nowhere somewhat this season after a disappointing loan at Middlesbrough to score seven goals in his past seven Premier League matches. The Brazilian only had 18 touches against Tottenham but made them count with his brace of goals.

Muniz is represented by CAA Base, who have a strong and deep presence at Spurs, while Toney is part of the CAA Stellar stable, who also have done plenty of business with the north London club in recent years.

The striker search will come in the summer though and it is all about the now that Postecoglou must focus on.

This was the first real disappointment he has felt in his players for struggling to stick to his principles or giving the required effort levels. His club interview after the game lasted just 51 seconds, giving those old Nuno Espirito Santo brief classics a run for their money.

He had less fortune in escaping the media after that and his press conference was closer to seven minutes and he generally just admitted that this was a bad day at the office.

“No, it’s not worrying, it’s just disappointing. I’d be worried if it was our fifth game in a row we did that (played with a lack of intensity) so it’s disappointing and we need to analyse it,” he said.

“That’s where we’re at with all of those things. You’ve got to try to treat it in isolation to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of one way or another, whether that’s positive or negative, going down rabbit holes that don’t exist.”

On his message to his players after the game, he added: “No different to any other game. It’s about continual growth and continual development. That’s never just a straight line. You’ve going to cop hits along the way and we’ve copped one today and we’ve just got to make sure that we bounce back.”

He ended the press conference with his pushing again of his assertation that fourth place should not be the target for the club this season.

“I don’t see fourth as the prize. This club has finished fourth before. It’s finished second before. You can throw all types of things at it, it’s reached the Champions League final, you can throw all sorts of things but this club has achieved things. So fourth is not my end goal,” he explained.

“I don’t want to finish fourth if we haven’t grown as a team and developed as a team. If nobody believes me then that’s fine. Part of the narrative is to push you in these kind of positions where you think that fourth is some kind of achievement that gives you something for next year. It doesn’t give you anything unless…fourth would be great if I feel like we’re growing as a team and we’re creating something that is going to bring us success next year.

“But fourth is not our goal. It hasn’t been. It’s not my goal. It certainly isn’t my goal but I get it from the outside, particularly in the Premier League, it seems like people push you into that position where you succeed or fail just on an outcome. I just don’t think that’s how you get success. Success is built on, I think, more tangible stuff. If we finish fifth and if I think we’ve got a team to challenge next year then I won’t be disappointed.”

There’s a certain amount of logic to what Postecoglou is saying and the mere presence of Champions League football is not an indicator of a football club ready to deal with it, as Newcastle and Manchester United have proved this season. Also the teams who have challenged the established hierarchy in recent campaigns in the Premier League have often done so without being in the top tier European competition.

It is also not a guarantee of signing better players as most would expect. Spurs’ most successful signings have often come in the summers when Champions League football was not on the menu for the following campaign.

In the first few months of 2024 alone they have beaten Bayern Munich and Barcelona to signings despite those two giants being all but guaranteed a place at Europe’s top table next season.

Champions League football would bring more money into Tottenham but for a club that now has a huge cash generator in its stadium, that should not be the be all and end all for Postecoglou’s transfer budget this coming summer.

However, the players do need a target. There was a point in Antonio Conte’s first season when he waited until a certain point in the campaign before declaring that he wanted them to go for the top four. They responded and got it.

There is a danger in going the other way in completely taking the pressure of the team’s targets as Postecoglou is but he will point (perhaps privately) to the fact that Conte’s Champions League qualification ultimately led to nothing as the team fell apart under the Italian’s tenure.

Postecoglou is looking to build something more long-term even if his stays at clubs are rarely much more than Conte’s. For the Australian it is more about next season and the one after and building a team that can challenge those at the top as he has done everywhere he has gone.

As with Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs team at its peak, the proof that it can be done in the Premier League comes from those local rivals down the road, who have consolidated this season with another title challenge while reaching the Champions League quarter-finals, albeit with a £100m addition in the shape of Declan Rice.

Mikel Arteta’s side have the same average age as Spurs of 25, the joint-third youngest in the Premier League, with a first team average age of 24.7 to the 24.9 of Postecoglou’s starting XI.

For the Australian, it is now about showing growth in the same way as Arsenal have in the past four or so years. He will have to do so amid a backdrop of a club starved of trophies and a hierarchy that frequently struggles to connect with a frustrated and beleaguered fanbase.

Postecoglou does not have problems in connecting and he will look to ensure that this was just a blip on the road.

When asked by the BBC whether this week felt like one step forward, one step back, he disagreed with Son’s assessment, simply saying: “It’s more like four steps forward, one step back. If we go one step forward, one back, we’d be more like in 18th position.”

He laughed at a Sky Sports reporter who asked how much this result might be a dent in the club’s top four hopes: “Yeah, look, it’s all over so we’ll just go for sixth. I mean, what am I meant to say to that? We’re two points behind Villa. There’s 10 games to go. There’s so much football to be played. If we’d have won today nothing is guaranteed, if we’d have lost last weekend, nothing is guaranteed.

“There’s ten games to play so I don’t worry about that stuff. I never have. It’s not about just falling into a place in the ladder. We could finish fourth, great, and everyone’s happy, brilliant, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done at this football club before. It’s about how we play, that’s all I’m interested in.

“We were disappointing today and we learn from that and move forward and tackle the next game.”

Postecoglou laughed at both that reporter and at another question in his press conference about the international break. The Australian is clearly growing exasperated by the line of questioning around the top four, something he hasn’t had to deal with before.

He is instead using it to shape a different mentality within the club.

His Spurs players will need to learn from this disappointing derby as will he and his relatively young coaching staff in terms of getting more consistency out of his team across full games rather than in periods of matches, especially in their end product.

Tottenham could do with a favour from another London rival in the shape of West Ham United on Sunday when Aston Villa make the trip down to the capital, even if Postecoglou is not looking for favours or league positions that lead nowhere.

The international break has not come at the best time which seems to be a recent theme at Spurs. They had an unwanted break after the defeat to Wolves at home last month due to the Chelsea game postponement and had the same with an international break after the defeat at Molineux in November.

Postecoglou will need to hope the players come back in a mood to get back on track as there will only be a couple of days to work ahead of the home game against Luton Town.

Then in quick succession comes a trip to West Ham, the return of Nuno Santo Espirito to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with Nottingham Forest and then an early kick-off up at Newcastle.

The home game against Manchester City in April will now be moved as Pep Guardiola’s side will play in the FA Cup semi-finals that day. That and the game at Stamford Bridge will have to be fitted in before the season ends, one could well be midweek in the final week of the campaign before the trip to Sheffield United.

There is indeed still a long way to go this season with those 10 matches to be played and much to be learned about this new version of Tottenham Hotspur and just how much it will grow under Postecoglou.

This was a jarring bump in the road in a season of development despite that big name departure at the start of the season, but the Australian will need to ensure that Spurs get back on track swiftly when the players return from their travels.

He might not be looking too intently at the table, but the Tottenham fans are and they ultimately will need to buy in completely to his philosophy as much as the players will.

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