Harry Kane put it as the pros tend to put it: heavy on understatement, a disappointing lack of drama. “There were a few words said by a few people,” the Tottenham striker said as he reflected on what went on during half-time as his team trailed 1-0 at Marseille, their Champions League hopes in the balance.
As ever, it was easy to read between the lines, to feel the emotion of the moment, the frustration, possibly even the anger. Because yet again, for the sixth game in a row, Spurs had not turned up in the first half.
Kane said the gist of the messaging on Tuesday night was that greater aggression and intensity was needed. With Antonio Conte stuck in the stands serving a ban for his red card against Sporting last week – the manager went through all manner of internal agonies – it was left to his assistants, Cristian Stellini and Ryan Mason, to provide the direction. The captain, Hugo Lloris, too.
Over a season there are always turning points, or at least the desire to locate them, and this certainly felt like one. Spurs brought the aggression after the restart, pushing higher, making runs ahead of the ball, taking responsibility and playing as if they meant it.
The game swung when Clément Lenglet glanced in Ivan Perisic’s 54th-minute free-kick, and despite a couple of late scares Spurs were value for their win and progress as group leaders, which was secured by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg’s last-gasp breakaway goal. Had they lost they would have been pressed into the Europa League.
Radical turnarounds after focused half-time chats have become the new normal at Spurs. They beat Everton in the middle of last month after going in at 0-0 and after blowing out entirely at Manchester United they almost got something against Newcastle after trailing 2-0 at the interval.
They came back to draw against Sporting, having been 1-0 down at half-time, and were unlucky not to win before they stormed back to beat Bournemouth on Saturday, having trailed 1-0 at the break and then 2-0.
The problem has been an inability to balance caution with risk and Spurs found it particularly difficult on a wild night in Marseille when they knew that a draw would have been enough to qualify, most likely as runners-up. It is often said that the end of the first half is the worst time to concede but Chancel Mbemba’s 45th-minute header might weirdly have been a good thing for Spurs.
“It’s always hard to come away from home in a tough atmosphere, knowing that a draw gets you through,” Kane said.
“It’s never easy to come out and go full throttle because you could end up being 2-0 down in 10 minutes and then you’re in a hole.
“We’ve got to find a balance between dropping and pressing. At the moment, we’re just dropping and sitting too deep. In the second half, we went man-for-man and took a bit more risk. We need to just find a little more patience when we are dropping and then being able to get out of that deep block and press. It is what we try to do but we’re just not quite executing it well enough.”
Kane talked about how there was no panic at half-time, partly because the team had been there before and more frequently than they would like. He stressed it was vital not to go 2-0 down as they had against Newcastle – lessons were learned from that, he said – and there was a point about Spurs’ excellent stamina, a legacy of the late, much-loved fitness coach Gian Piero Ventrone.
“We’re a team that always feels like we’re going to get chances, especially in the second half of games when teams get tired,” Kane said. “Fitness-wise we’re a really strong team so we feel like we can always come strong in the second-half.”
It sounded a little reductive on one level and it even evoked memories of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy. Are Spurs lulling opponents into a false sense of security, luring them in to punch themselves out? It is game management but not as we know it.
The main thing was that it worked against Marseille and Kane can feel a spring in his step before the World Cup in Qatar, which kicks off on 20 November. He will carry England’s hopes as captain and talisman.
Kane was brilliant in the second half against Marseille, even though he knew he should have put away one of his chances. You could feel that from his rueful smiles. But he was a strong outlet, getting his team up the pitch, linking the play with lovely passes and driving into the box.
“It was really important [to reach the last 16] just before the World Cup,” he said. “If we’d have gone out, it would have been a real sting because you know you’re coming back from the World Cup and playing Europa League and it’s just not the same feeling.”
Kane returned to the night before the Marseille tie when local ultras set off fireworks over the Spurs hotel, trying to disrupt them. They exploded at 1.30am and 4.30am. “We expected it,” he said. “We were told the fireworks might happen. I woke up on the first lot but the second lot – I was fast asleep thankfully.”
Rivals have been warned. If they are going to take shots at Kane, they had better make them count. Because he will be back. Spurs will be back.