Given Tottenham’s struggles in the final-third this year, it was fitting today that after eighty-one fallow minutes at Sunderland, their first win of the season come courtesy of a charmingly intricate goal.
For Spurs, the problem so far has been largely obvious: without an array of ambitious, progressive forwards in their line-up, their attacking play has largely taken place in front of the defences that they’ve faced. Their play has commonly been ponderous, it’s been overly deliberate and, with precious few exceptions, it’s been unsuccessful.
Mauricio Pochettino’s team are a product of their own circumstances and, in the absence of a wide array of contrasting options, the Argentinian has looked to win games with precision rather than flair. This is a patient Tottenham team but, without the dynamic force of years gone by, they have frequently looked like one without a purpose.
Pass, pass, pass…one pass too many.
Ryan Mason’s late goal at The Stadium of Light brought with it the first win of the Premier League season. The sub-plot, however, was that it demonstrated vividly what Pochettino Season Two is supposed to look like and how it is that he intends to succeed with this group of players.
And Mason, so often dismissed as a spear-carrying goodwill project, was the key component.
When the young midfielder is derided, it is nearly always in a highly-reductive. He is viewed as a sideways passer of limited technical ability and as a player long on enthusiasm but ultimately short on elite-level finesse. His value exists beneath the surface, though, and in his willingness to make runs up to and beyond the edge of the opposing penalty-box.
He has imperfections. His passing isn’t always that reliable and as a nominal central-midfielder his defensive awareness does have to improve, but his movement - so often characterised as erratic or harmful to the collective shape - is more educated than many assume.
The highlight details from today’s goal: the slick work and vision from Erik Lamela; the precise lay-off from Harry Kane; the smart finish from Mason himself.
All important factors, certainly, and all worthy of praise. The common-thread between them, however - the grease in the move’s gears - was Mason’s willingness to travel up the pitch. He was the one exploiting space, he was the one creating passing options for Kane and Lamela, and he was the one who produced the numerical mismatch which ultimately pierced the Sunderland defence.
It was stylistically very impressive, but it owed as much to Mason’s blue-collared graft as it did to the garnishing flourishes.
That’s a simple quality, but it’s an important one - especially so in within the context of this squad. Tottenham have a lot of talent in midfield and Pochettino has players to choose from who are more gifted than Mason in many areas of the game, but none of them satisfy the same tactical purpose as he does and, consequently, he was the difference between one point and three this afternoon.
Trace the move back to its genesis and take note of Mason’s role from the beginning: that’s who he is, that’s why he’s in the team.