Two minutes before half-time at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium something terrible happened to Marko Marin, Red Star Belgrade’s captain, and a seductive little playmaker who had spent the previous quarter of an hour twirling about the turf like a supermarket own-brand Luka Modric.
Head up, sleeves bunched elegantly at the cuffs, Marin approached Tanguy Ndombele, jinked one way, dropped his shoulder, twitched his hips, doffed his stetson, performed an elaborate trick with his Zippo lighter, then realised too late that he’d forgotten that key element in all this, the ball.
Ndombele was already steaming off in the other direction. The pass inside was so well-timed that Son Heung-min, who played all night with an irresistible light around him, could afford a heavy first touch that wrong-footed the Red Star goalkeeper. Son sidefooted the ball into the empty space at the near post. A run on goal from the halfway line. A 3-0 half-time lead. A visiting defence that kept scattering in all directions, like a troupe of silent-film comedians being chased by a portly traffic cop. It was that kind of night at the New Lane, an occasion when Spurs were both fortunate to find themselves up against an appallingly brittle Red Star; and also perhaps a little unlucky to find themselves up against an appallingly brittle Red Star.
How to judge a night like this? How to read the runes at a time when Spurs have been desperate for some sense of defibrillation? Those who want to see it all burn, who see only an endgame will point to the poverty of the opposition. And yet there was something more here. Most obviously there was Son, bellwether of the good times. With 20 minutes to go he was substituted and left the pitch by the nearest route, walking along the touchline in front of the huge kop end. As he passed in front of the seats that entire single-tier Tottenham ziggurat purred and seethed and thrummed with pure affection.
It was a brilliant piece of theatre from Son, who really did look like he was just being nice, grinning and waving and high-fiving. But it felt like something else too – a note of shared warmth, even perhaps of catharsis. In a team that has thrived on its own shared libido, fired by that “universal energy” Pochettino likes to talk about, it might just be worth something.
And really Son was the story here. For long periods Red Star simply didn’t know what to do with him. There was something genuinely startling about how easy he found it to whizz away from the blue-shirted defenders, spurting across the grass like an intruder from next year’s software upgrade, a Uefa 2021 interloper, zoom button constantly revved up to 11. With six minutes gone Son took possession 10 yards from the touchline, span, slipped the ball through the legs of José Cañas, saw the space had closed, stepped away from Cañas again, then fed the ball inside. It felt a little cruel. Except, this was Son. And that swagger felt like a moment of ignition. Four minutes later Spurs scored a laughably easy opening goal, Harry Kane walking away from Milos Degenek into a lovely little patch of green, then glancing a header into the far corner. The second goal was Son’s first of two. It came from the same side. Lamela crossed. Son, who was unless specifically stated otherwise, always haring into the box at warp speed five, came haring into the box at warp speed five. The finish was gleeful, a half-volley smashed with absolute certainty into the roof of the net.
B y the end Spurs had thrashed a team that came looking for a thrashing. But there was more to them here. For a start, the team selection. Perhaps Pochettino has been watching New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup. Out of choice or necessity he seemed to have introduced his own No Dickheads rule here, dropping from the XI those players who have gummed the works or whined publicly about their own prospects.
Instead Spurs came to run and to press and to play toe-to-toe with the Red Star backline. An attacking three of Son, Dele Alli and Érik Lamela, king of the midfield scrag, is Pochettino’s equivalent of letting loose the hounds. Ahead of them Kane, in deep-lying Sheringham mode, was brilliant.
Best of all it brought a performance of real vim and energy from Son, in a team that has been notable for its lack of both. The struggles of this Spurs team have been a matter of dark energy and bad juju as much as personnel and tactics; a feeling of eras passing, of players who have simply stopped following the script.
A 5-0 thrashing of a supine Red Star is hardly a cure-all. But Son gave them something that has been absent here. And sometimes a spark really can be enough.