Football News

How Tottenham assist-machine Dejan Kulusevski kept pace with Eric Cantona in 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 19:00, 28 August 2022

On the heels of a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Wolves – their second straight win at home to start the season, with a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge sandwiched in between – Tottenham rolled into the City Ground with designs on keeping pace with Arsenal, Manchester City and Brighton at the top of the Premier League table.

Unsurprisingly, Forest started out spiritedly, looking to attack, and forced Hugo Lloris to touch the ball twice in the first minute, once to punch it out of the box, and again, seconds later, on a sliding catch of a cross in front of goal. However, the plot quickly took a nasty turn for the hosts as, just five minutes in, Dejan Kulusevski pounced on a loose ball after some sloppy midfield play from Forest and drove forward toward the box, before laying off to Harry Kane, who caught keeper Dean Henderson leaning the wrong way and slotted into the bottom right.

The goal held significance beyond earning Tottenham an early lead, as it was Kane’s 200th career league goal in league play…

..and earned Dejan Kulusevski his tenth Premier League assist (no one in the league has more since he joined Spurs in February), placing the Swedish star in select company, alongside Eric Cantona and Ángel Di María, and behind only Bruno Fernandes, Kevin De Bruyne and record-holder Brett Emerton for fastest-ever players to 10 Premier League assists.

Forest, undeterred, maintained their aggressiveness and attacking intent but lacked the final touch or pass in the box to break through. Eventually, around the 20-minute mark, the hosts forced Lloris into a save and, after a brief scramble a diving catch on a header from one of his defenders.

This on its own would have been frustrating for Steve Cooper. Exacerbating the issue was the fact that Spurs looked poised to score every time they got forward. However, other than a great opportunity for Kane that was thwarted by a tackle in the box and a pair of potential opportunities for Son Heung-Min undone by a foul and offside, Spurs couldn’t make the danger count.

As the game approached the half hour, Forest’s spirit and purpose in attack began to shift the game’s momentum. For the final 15 minutes of the first half, it was Nottingham Forest heaping pressure on the Spurs defence and Lloris, to the tune of an awesome 47 dangerous attacks (and 84 in total), compared to just 12 and 37 for Spurs, with golden opportunities falling to Brennan Johnson and Morgan Gibbs-White, who were unable to convert. Incredibly (inexplicably, one might say), the score line remained 0-1 to Spurs as the halftime whistle sounded.

That momentum carried over after the intermission, with Forest continuing to take the game to Antonio Conte’s side. However, Forest were nearly burned early in the second half they had been in the first. Nine minutes into the second half, an Ivan Perisic cross into the box from the left looked destined for the back of the Forest net via Kane’s head. However, in his aerial duel with Kane, Forest defender Steve Cook intercepted the pass with his hand. VAR concluded (fortunately for Cook) that the infraction was worthy of a yellow card and (rightly) that Spurs were due a penalty.

In a meeting of ‘irresistible force and immovable object’, Kane – as close as there to a foregone conclusion from the spot – stared down Dean Henderson, who’d only allowed one of four Premier League penalties against him to find the net (with two saves, and Jack Grealish hitting the post), and…

…Dean Henderson dove spectacularly to his right, saving Kane’s decently-placed and excellently struck kick.

Henderson was back at it moments later, thwarting a Son-led attack around the hour mark to maintain the 0-1 deficit. All the while, Forest continued to press, creating opportunities, but simply unable to find the opening or moment of brilliance to break through against Lloris.

Then, in the 81st, a Ryan Sessegnon-led break seemingly fizzles when his pass, intended for Kane, is blocked. However, trailing the play is Richarlison, who recovers the ball on the left wing. At this point the entirety of the Forest defence momentarily forgets about Harry Kane, allowing Richarlison to coolly loft a cross to the far post, for a tap-in header that doubles Tottenham’s lead and further bolsters Kane’s CV…

Forest fought gamely for the final nine minutes of the 90 plus eight minutes of stoppage time, driving forward and swarming around the Tottenham box, uncorking some half-decent shots, while Henderson continued doing all he could to keep them in the game, most notably diving beautifully to keep a Richarlison shot out of the bottom right corner in the 92nd. Unfortunately for Forest, in the end, despite tallying (as they had in the first half) more dangerous attacks (30) in the second half than Tottenham (17), they simply could not find the final moment of brilliance to truly trouble Lloris and Spurs. Thus, despite a whopping 144 attacks, 77 dangerous attacks and 17 shots, Forest managed a lone shot on target.

This, however, doesn’t tell the entire story, as Steve Cooper’s side fought spectacularly and showed an attacking intent that will get them through far more Premier League encounters than not.

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After game, Spurs boss Antonio Conte said to Sky Sports of his side: “This group of players is improving. They are learning to suffer together. But we have to keep improving, especially with the ball. We have to play with more personality.”

He continued, “The mentality is really important. If you are strong mentally you survive this situation. If you are weak you suffer. We have to continue to work. Sometimes only when you win something you get that confidence from being a winner.”

Finally, with regards to the challenge faced by his side on the day, Conte added: “If you are strong mentally, you survive this situation. If you are weak, you suffer. We have to keep working. Sometimes it’s only when you win something that you get that confidence to be a winner.”