Rugged midfield finally gives Tottenham's stars the platform they've needed
From Tottenham Hotspur Stadium - After a manic week at Spurs, the dust has finally settled.
The club are pulling out of the Super League. Jose Mourinho is gone for good. The trophy drought goes on. Seven days without an incident is probably the longest stretch at Tottenham for a few decades, their storylines and narratives just lines to a remix of Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire.
But the elephant still in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium cheese room is the uncertain future of Harry Kane (and to a lesser extent, Son Heung-min).
Should Spurs crack and sell their star forwards, then they'll look to the transfer market to replace them. Their biggest current weaknesses come in defence, but at least they have a good crop of midfielders ready for whoever the next head coach is.
Tanguy Ndombele (24), Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Giovani Lo Celso and Dele Alli (all 25) are entering the prime of their careers, and have all shown glimpses of real quality - though rarely intertwining or consistently.
Lo Celso and Ndombele are the two most expensive players in Spurs' history, but neither has done enough to raise the floor or ceiling of the team. Defending relies on structure, attacking relies on goalscoring, but midfielders need to show up just to keep the team functioning at both ends, and Tottenham's haven't done that enough in the last couple of years.
Mourinho's strange banishment of Dele has led to a lot of revisionism about how good he is; this is still a player who provided a healthy return of eight goals and four assists in 25 games last season. He hasn't been afforded nearly enough time this campaign to properly showcase his worth.
Ndombele and Hojbjerg started this season well, propelling themselves into team of the half-season talk, but their failings in 2021 have been costly. They haven't looked as sharp mentally or physically, and Spurs will hope that's just symptomatic of the pandemic and not an issue of quality.
Mauricio Pochettino's midfields were always changing season on season, but they understood their jobs and carried them out expertly. There is quite obviously quality in Spurs' ranks - it just needs to be dragged out of them.
Ryan Mason has been eager to stress that he believes that, too. That Tottenham should be playing on the front foot because there's so much talent in attacking areas. Spurs' performance in their 4-0 win over Sheffield United was largely about that at the very top end.
Spurs did at least play with intensity and urgency. Mason's role as caretaker seems to be twinned with one of a curator, providing a a pre-season before pre-season to get the team out of the bad habits picked up under Mourinho's tutelage.
But beyond Gareth Bale's headline performance, there was at least a rugged consistency about the midfield - they weren't spectacular, but they did their jobs, the shifts they should be putting in if Spurs are serious about challenging.
Dele - much to the detriment of older fans who'll claim that his new lid is distracting him from football - looked lively, pressing from the front and building from deep. Hojbjerg put aside a wretched run of form to stand tall in front of the back four, looking as streetwise as he did in the autumn. Lo Celso kept the ball moving (that's all I've got for him, but hey, he wasn't horrendous).
It gave Tottenham the platform their stars needed, something just as important as goals or assists when you have Bale, Kane and Son ahead of you.
Fans shouldn't expect much in the way of big results or eye-catching performances as the season winds down. But as the club self-reflects and searches for an identity again, the core of the team need to do the same - Sunday's win was a good start.