Spurs show they are lucky as well as good to move further clear at the Premier League summit
Crystal Palace (0) 1 Ayew 90+4'
Tottenham (0) 2 Ward OG 53’, Son 67’
As Ange Postecoglou raised a fist into the clear south London night air to greet the first of Tottenham’s two latest goals under his charge, he could have been forgiven for once again thinking Premier League management is easy.
The Australian has made the best-ever start by a new manager in this league, and already has two manager of the month awards to show for it, yet his side had toiled in an uninspired first half at Selhurst Park in which they failed to register a shot on target.
On nights such as these, when Roy Hodgson would have loved nothing more than to celebrate his 500th game in English football by nullifying the league leaders through a combination of defensive structure and effective game management, it can often pay to be lucky rather than good.
And that was precisely what Postecoglou found just eight minutes into the second half, as a Pape Sarr cross deflected into the path of James Maddison and Joel Ward then turned the cross-shot that followed into his own net.
Spurs nudged in front without needing to fashion a genuine effort in Sam Johnstone’s direction and only then showed their quality to take the game out of Palace’s reach, as the home side opened up just enough to allow Son-heung Min to score his eighth goal of the season.
It had been Tottenham’s willingness to commit bodies in forward areas that caused their own problems in a flat opening 45 minutes. Of course it is a staple of this new fun-loving, free-flowing epoch they find themselves in, but on the occasions Palace broke hard and fast from their defensive shape, the visitors were rocked.
With the full-backs acting as midfield players in all but name, the determined Crystal Palace wide pair of Jeffrey Schlupp and Jordan Ayew often found themselves with acres of turf to exploit.
Ayew had the first effort on target of the night, testing Guglielmo Vicario low to his left after Will Hughes had laid off the ball having accepted he did not have the pace to outrun Micky Van de Ven.
Palace’s threat was not solely reserved for the flanks though, with Hughes proving effective support for Odsonne Edouard whilst also limiting Yves Bissouma’s influence on the game.
It was often only the recovery speed of Micky Van de Ven that stopped Palace getting a clear sight of Vicario’s goal, and Edouard was still firmly in the mood to challenge him at every turn. The French striker tested Vicario with a powerful strike from the edge of the box.
Palace, a side that had scored just once in their last four games, were growing in confidence the more they appreciated that Hodgson’s plan was working, and Selhurst Park was quick to join them.
Only an excellent tackle by Jefferson Lerma denied Maddison a clear sight of goal on the first occasion he managed to link effectively with Son, and an untimely Sarr slip denied him the chance to deliver a telling cross from an area of undeniable danger as the half-time whistle blew with this awkward contest having all of the makings of points dropped for the league leaders.
Postecoglou had said beforehand that none of his seven victories so far had come easily, and it was only their effective work out of possession that cracked open Fulham earlier in the week, and it was something similar, if less direct, that ultimately did the trick here.
Although the opening goal ended up in the net in fortunate circumstances, it only came about courtesy of a throw-in won deep in the Palace half after Maddison had applied pressure to Johnstone after an unwelcome pass had landed at his feet.
The home crowd grew frustrated with Palace as perceived pluckiness gave way to passivity following Ward’s moment of misfortune. Hodgson summoned exciting 21-year-old Jes Rak-Sakyi from the bench to both placate them and try and find a route back into the game, but this show of ambition proved costly.
For all Ayew’s perceived flaws in an attacking sense, he had provided effective protection for Ward down the right flank. Maddison had probed unsuccessfully down that side for much of the evening, but with one less body in the way as Rak-Sakyi stayed forward and Brennan Johnson now on in place of Richarlison, the Tottenham talisman played a delightful one-two with the summer signing from Nottingham Forest before he searched for Son.
There was an inevitability about the Tottenham captain finding the net, once again capitalising on the brilliant work of a new and entirely different No 10 to make the difference for the north Londoners.
Just as this latest victory threatened to be straightforward and without undue fuss, Ayew larupped a bouncing ball into the top corner of Vicario’s net in the fourth minute of what turned out to be almost 13 added on.
But Spurs did survive, holding on for a victory that had more to do with good fortune than the quality they have previously shown. Now sitting five points clear at the Premier League summit, they are unlikely to care.
Crystal Palace: (4-2-3-1) Johnstone – Ward, Andersen, Guehi, Mitchell (Clyne 70)– Doucoure, Lerma (Franca 79) – Ayew, Hughes (Ahamada 70), Schlupp (Rak-Sakyi 60) – Edouard (Mateta 79). Subs not used: Matthews, Holding, Richards, Riedewald
Tottenham: (4-3-3) Vicario – Porro, Romero, Van de Ven, Davies (Royal H/T) – Sarr, Bissouma (Hojbjerg 64), Maddison (Gil 89) – Kulusevski (Bentancur 89), Son, Richarlison (Johnson 64). Subs not used: Forster, Skipp, Dier, Lo Celso