It was only on Monday night when Ange Postecoglou declared that Tottenham had played their “worst 45 minutes of the season”, but by Friday there was perhaps an immediate contender to surpass it. Frustrated by Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park and without a shot on target, Tottenham went into the break with a problem to solve. But, by the end, as Spurs picked and probed and then found a way through, the struggles of the first half were a distant memory. After all, Tottenham are now five points clear at the top of the Premier League.
A fourth consecutive victory came courtesy of a Joel Ward own goal and an eighth of the season from Son Heung-min and, eventually, it felt thoroughly deserved. Against a deep and disciplined Palace defence, Tottenham required patience but Postecoglou’s team stuck to their plan. Even with talk of Spurs emerging as title contenders, they kept the calm heads required to find the breakthrough. When the hosts finally offered something of their own after Jordan Ayew’s excellent volley in the the 94th minute, Tottenham were able to see out a nervy end as well.
How the Spurs fans in the corner of Selhurst Park would have soaked in the scenes that followed, as Postecoglou and his players applauded the travelling supporters after extending the club’s best start to a league campaign since 1960-61. It has been a dream first two months of the season and Tottenham have taken advantage of what has been in front of them: namely a favourable fixture list and the absence of European fixtures. Here, that was added to by a meek performance from the Eagles and a calamity from Ward. But, one way or another, it has all combined to leave Tottenham five points clear.
“Tonight was always going to be difficult but I liked how the players handled it,” Postecoglou said. “They were patient, persistent in finding the gaps. It was a different challenge for us tonight and I Iiked how we went about it.”
It took until the 53rd minute, but Tottenham eventually found a way through Palace, even as the visitors took the lead before managing to have a shot on target. It came thanks to a disastrous moment from the Palace captain, as Ward was caught at the back post and awkwardly diverted James Maddison’s cross into his own net. The source of the breakthrough, though, did not come as a surprise. Rather, as Postecoglou said later, it came through discipline and trust in the Australian’s approach.
All game, Tottenham had looked to play around the sides of Roy Hodgson’s stubborn and compact defensive shape, attempting to create overloads to break Palace down. Maddison drifted wide to combine with Richarlison on the left, but it was the bursts of Pape Matar Sarr and the guile of Dejan Kulusevski that appeared more threatening on the right. Eventually, as Pedro Porro slipped Sarr through and it broke to Maddison, Ward provided the finishing touch to the fizzed delivery across the face of goal.
Tottenham’s second came via the same route, even if the finisher was more familiar. Son added another first-time finish to his collection this season as Spurs again took to the sides to cut Palace apart. After Sarr’s switch, Maddison’s quick two touches released the overlapping Brennan Johnson – who had replaced Richarlison moments before. Johnson took a moment before pulling the cross back to Son and the Spurs captain, now with eight Premier League goals this season, was typically clinical with his left foot.
And so, after a first half where Tottenham struggled to create any clear openings, the three points felt secured within the space of 11 second-half minutes. Palace offered very little after going behind, Hodgson’s side refusing to open up or press Tottenham to the growing anger of the home supporters. Even though Tottenham’s Guglielmo Vicario further enhanced his reputation as perhaps the standout goalkeeper in the Premier League this season with two early stops, first denying Jordan Ayew and then Odsonne Edouard, Palace’s best chance without either Eberechi Eze or Michael Olise seemed to be holding out for 0-0.
There was nothing surprising about Palace’s approach from kick-off but it did enough to briefly halt Tottenham’s momentum under the Friday night lights of Selhurst Park. Hodgson’s side, and a defence that shipped four goals away to Newcastle last weekend, were set up to be awkward and difficult against the leaders, a sign perhaps of the force Tottenham have already become under Postecoglou.
At first, Tottenham struggled to open up the gaps and it said a lot about the growing importance of left-back Destiny Udogie. Ruled out due to injury, the impressive 20-year-old left a void that Ben Davies never looked comfortable trying to fill. Udgoie has been a revelation in this fresh Spurs side by impressing in the half left-back, half number 10 role that Postecoglou demands. Even without the Italian, Postecoglou did not compromise his approach as Davies stepped in, but the 30-year-old looked lost as he looked to drift ahead of Maddison when Spurs were in possession.
Davies’s first start of the Premier League season lasted all of 47 minutes, replaced by Emerson Royal at half-time. Postecoglou needed an answer and the introduction of Johnson on the wing brought an improvement on Richarlison, who continues to look short of confidence when in attacking positions. If Richarlison and Maddison never quite looked in sync, that changed with the arrival of the Welshman. While Tottenham’s opening goal was fortuitous, the second was sharp and brought a rare moment of class to the contest.
It was considerably more than the little Palace were able to muster, until Ayew lashed in an excellent volley in the 94th minute: by the time the goal was eventually awarded after a VAR check for handball, it gave Tottenham five more minutes to see out. Palace did have one last chance after a cross to the back post fell to Matheus Franca in the box. But the substitute sliced the chance wide and high, Spurs breathed a sigh of relief and in the corner, the party finally could begin.