Jimmy Greaves, Tottenham’s record goalscorer and a World Cup winner with England in 1966, passed away on Sunday morning aged 81
All four corners of the Tottenham Hotspur stadium were united before the match and a half-time. By the end, only one corner had reason to cheer, as Chelsea triumphed 3-0 against Tottenham Hotspur in an encounter diluted from its usual fury by the news of Jimmy Greaves’ passing in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Those lucky enough to have witnessed Greaves speak of sharp movements and efficient finishes, two aspects of forward-play that his peers and countless others since have struggled to master. Both of which seemed to come naturally to him. His most profound work came in a Spurs shirt with 266 goals in 379 appearances, and yet there were also 132 in 169 appearances for Chelsea between 1957 and 1961. Even before his passing, he was an olive branch between these two London rivals.
There seemed a fitting tribute on the green in the middle within the tributes to Graves that adorned the screen, following the minute’s applause before this encounter between seventh and fourth. At a time when elite strikers of Greaves’ ilk are few and far between, here were Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku, two of the best, duking it out on a rainy afternoon in north London. Both taller but with a similar command of their centres of gravity and the space around them, not to mention an awareness of where they need to be and when. Along with the most important facet of this glorious charade, of course – knowing where the goal is.
Both had registered their first feels of the ball within the opening five minutes. Lukaku trying to combine with Kai Havertz on the edge of the box within the opening minute, albeit from an offside position. Kane struck a free-kick from a similar position, cannoning off the bodies blocking the bottom corner at the far post for a corner.
As the game settled, their work took them further back into the pockets of midfield, facing towards their own goals. Lukaku rolled and offloaded to start breaks, Kane collected and spread to trigger moves. Halfway through the first half, the Belgian did the former in combination with Mason Mount, whose shot was snuffed out and cleared to Kane dropping deep into his half to do the latter.
These were the same areas where Greaves would venture into, turning to beat however many players he needed to beat – often including the goalkeeper – before rolling the ball into the net. Present day’s cluttered midfields have made that a very low-reward pursuit, even if modern pitches are better suited to such jaunts than the muddy fields Greaves was said to have floated above.
It was during half-time, as further tributes came, that former Spurs captain Steve Perryman and teammate of Greaves was asked if he was the greatest. “The greatest?” Perryman asked back, computing the parameters of the question before concluding he was certainly the greatest seen at this football club.
For a moment, the nub of present-day football discourse was rubbed sore at the open-ended assertion, even if Perryman at 69 years old is unlikely (and fortunate) to be privy to the interminable back-and-forth of who is and isn’t The GOAT. Even if Greaves’ record is on a par with those of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Era comparisons are the most fruitless of conversations given the differences in variables on aspects such as science, tactics and even technology. And there were endearing chuckles when it was revealed Greaves would on occasion settle his half-time nerves with a cheeky cigarette to underline how different a time it was back then.
Yet as complicated as football has become, for better and worse, some absolutes remain. And in a half that featured plenty of high-quality of football but left both Hugo Lloris and Kepa Arrizabalaga relatively untroubled, it was that Spurs’ dominance and Chelsea’s game management would count for nothing without efforts on goal.
Within two minutes of the second half, Marcos Alonso had Chelsea’s first shot on target. Three minutes later, Thiago Silva tined his run to perfect – the last in the box for Alonso’s corner – to head the visitors into the lead. Then came N’Golo Kante’s ‘finish’: encouraged to shoot from distance by a retreating Sours backline, striking an innocuous shot that picked up malice off Eric Dier’s left leg, scuttling in off the post for 2-0.
Chelsea controlled what remained, stretching Spurs as fast and as slow as they desired. The game lost its zip, even its sense of celebration, long before Antonio Rudiger showed a finisher’s nous to dart away from goal and whip a right-foot finish into the corner from Timo Werner’s pullback. With that a fourth league win for Thomas Tuchel had its gloss, a consecutive league defeat for Nuno Espirito Santo its compounding.
As we entered the dregs of added time, Lukaku bustled one last time, shifting a weary Dier back and then forth, before eventually having a shot blocked. He managed just one shot on target (a header, straight at Lloris) as did Kane (a shot from 20 yards, straight at Kepa). The two top marksman in Europe blunted by whims rather than a lack of sharpness.
They left the field with wildly contrasting emotions, but both were visibly exhausted and no doubt sour to leave such an open game empty-handed, perhaps even rueful that the deciding three goals on Sunday came from three unlikely sources.
It was another example of just how hard goalscoring can be. That whether in victory or defeat, goals do not tell of a striker’s work but are instructive of their worth. And, in turn, just how great Jimmy Greaves must have been.