Watford 0-1 Tottenham: Davinson Sanchez scored a late header from Son Heung-min’s free-kick to break the deadlock in an otherwise ragged Spurs performance
Tottenham began 2022 at Vicarage Road with the sort of performance which neatly encapsulated their most glaring flaws of the previous year – patient but passive, lacking decisiveness and a cutting edge – but a late headed goal by Davinson Sanchez showed a newfound resolve under Antonio Conte that will stand them in good stead in the year to come. A largely dire match like this would have cost Tottenham in days gone by, but instead three points could prove invaluable in their chase of the top four.
The goal came in the 96th minute during eight added on after the match had been paused while a supporter was given medical attention in the stands. Spurs had lacked dangerous delivery throughout, but Son Heung-min’s free-kick was devilish, dipping into the six-yard box where Sanchez rose to nod past an otherwise dogged Daniel Bachmann. At the final whistle Conte did not scream and shout but simply punched the air and puffed out his cheeks, relief being the overriding emotion after such a slog.
This was so nearly a missed opportunity. Spurs host Arsenal next in a crucial north London derby, which could go some way to shaping the fight for Champions League places. It’s the start of a tough run – their next two away games are at Chelsea and Manchester City. Victory here lifts them to within two points of fourth-placed Arsenal with two games in hand after the Gunners lost to Manchester City earlier in the day.
Conte reverted to his go-to XI, which he predominately used when he first took charge, with Harry Winks dropped to the bench despite his impressive recent form and Oliver Skipp restored to the starting team. Dele Alli also made way with Lucas Moura returning to a three-man front line alongside Son and Harry Kane. Claudio Ranieri made three changes with William Troost-Ekong replacing the injured Kiko Femenia at the back, Imran Louza coming into midfield and Ken Sema making his first start since August in attack.
Reports circulating before the match claimed Ranieri is already under pressure at Vicarage Road – a place where managers rarely live to see Christmas twice – amid doubts in the dressing room about his suitability to organise the team. Yet here they appeared unusually well drilled, cutting off passing lanes into Spurs’ forward players and forcing them to play wide where wing-backs Sergio Reguilon and Emerson Royal found their radars lost in a New Year’s Day haze.
Tottenham had plenty of pedestrian possession but not much penetration, a slashed volley over the bar from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg their first threatening effort. Kane had a half-hearted shout for a penalty turned down after a clumsy challenge from behind, then curled a shot wide with a clear sight of goal after Skipp had pounced on a loose touch, but Watford goalkeeper Bachmann was unmoved beyond fending a couple of long range efforts.
Ranieri made a change at the break with Brazilian forward Joao Pedro replacing top scorer Emmanuel Dennis, understood to have picked up a minor knock, and although Conte sent out the same Spurs XI, they began to speed up their game. Lucas Moura let a shot fly but it was too close to Bachmann before Kane forced the Austrian keeper to tip over with a left-footed strike from the edge of the box.
Watford’s stubborn defensive line was already deep and they became more and more entrenched as the minutes ticked by, yet Spurs’ increased urgency had the effect of leaving more space in behind and Joao Pedro almost exploited it. He and most of Vicarage Road were exasperated when, bursting into the Tottenham box, he heard the referee Rob Jones’s whistle bring play back for a foul when an advantage could have been played. From about 25 mètres, Joao Pedro skied the free-kick almost as high over the bar.
Winks replaced the booked Skipp and added some spark. Giovani Lo Celso came on for Reguilon as Spurs switch to a back four. Son almost won it with an over-the-shoulder volley which Bachmann beat away, and it seemed it was not to be until Sanchez’s late header ended Watford’s resolve.
Watford have more important tests on the horizon with a trip to Newcastle before the visit of Norwich, two teams who will sense the opportunity to drag a rival into the relegation mire, and Ranieri will need results to keep his job if reports this week are to be believed. The feeling at Spurs is that maybe Conte is just getting started.