Friday night, Prenton Park, under the floodlights. A description that might make Birkenhead sound like the scene of a grisly crime where the victim is identified as an elite member of highest society. Friday night, Prenton Park, under the floodlights. A description that might make Birkenhead sound like the scene of a grisly crime where the victim is identified as an elite member of highest society.
Not here, though; not with Tottenham showing this sort of focus against an opponent from three levels below. Instead, it was Tranmere getting ice-picked by Tottenham’s nerveless executioners.
Mauricio Pochettino knew that even a draw would mean his players would face midweek matches throughout the next month and this is not a schedule he wanted, really; especially when you consider Tottenham’s glorious possibilities in other competitions, considering too he might be without Heung-Min Son until the start of February while he goes off to represent South Korea in the Asian Cup.
Son was named by Pochettino because of that reality and how they will miss a forward in the form of his career having now scored eight goals in six games.
Liam Ridehalgh, the Tranmere left-back, is a strong, filthy-as-muck sort of defender who gives the impression that he relishes taking any challenge head-on.
The challenge of stopping Son, though, was too much and his influence reminded that when Premier League clubs name at least some of their best players against sides like Tranmere, they usually win and win comfortably.
You can only imagine how Tranmere’s forlorn defenders must have felt when, trailing by six-goals with 15 minutes still remaining, Pochettino decided to substitute Fernando Llorente following his hat-trick and introduce Harry Kane.
The decision almost felt cruel but it does reflect that Pochettino recognises the benefits of drawing more confidence even when there are opportunities of absolute rest.
Pochettino had chosen to make eight changes to the team that brushed Cardiff City aside on Tuesday. Though this was a weaker Tottenham XI, it also included Dele Alli and every player did have Premier League experience.
Pochettino was paying respect to the opponent through his formation, using three centre-halves to combat the twin threat of 18-goal leading scorer James Norwood and Connor Jennings, whose volleys at Southport in the last round earned Tranmere a tie that has pocketed the club £500,000.
Tottenham’s purpose from the beginning gave an indication as to the margin of their victory.
They had drawn away at Newport County and Rochdale in the FA Cup last season before progressing in replays and so, it felt like an appreciation existed of the sort of problems that lie in wait when offering encouragement to enthusiastic opponents backed by excitable crowds.
Tottenham’s lead should have been at least by two inside the opening 15 minutes. Son was involved in both opportunities; wasting the first as the beneficiary of an error by Steve McNulty without being able to enforce the maximum punishment, and then releasing Lucas Moura with a well-disguised pass only for the Brazilian to rush when it mattered.
Tranmere were hurried in literally everything they did and this helped them constrict Tottenham in some areas of the field initially but their eagerness also had a tendency to get the better of them, like when Luke McCullough sprayed a gorgeous pass into the path of Norwood, who fell over as he sent a shot scurrying well wide of Paolo Gazzaniga’s goal.
Norwood, instead, would play a key role in Tottenham’s opener, struck deliciously by Serge Aurier from 25 yards.
It had been Norwood’s decision to try and dribble his way out of trouble from a central position but after being hustled out of possession by Aurier, who suddenly had switched from wing-back, the Ivorian had just the amount of time to regain his balance and with a swish of his right foot, Tottenham were ahead.
Historically, Tranmere had been in this sort of position before: trailing a giant at home in the cup before slaying them in front of a bloodthirsty Prenton Park. Their relationship with the FA Cup, indeed, is defined by considerations around the size of the club.
Three quarter final appearances between 2000 and 2004 were achieved when Tranmere were no lower than mid-table in League One.
They reached the League Cup final in 2000, the season before they were relegated from the Championship. In 1994, in the years after they’d narrowly missed out on promotion into the formative Premier League, there would have been another stab at a League Cup final had Aston Villa not been able to rescue themselves from the depths of a 3-1 first leg defeat in the semi at this very stadium.
When you consider Bournemouth are in the Premier League and their ground as well as a catchment area is a lot smaller than Tranmere’s, you begin to appreciate that this is a club operating below possible standards, though owner and former-player Mark Palios is desperate to change that and he believes that it is possible with the right care and guidance, to sustain his model in the Championship even with the enormous financial shifts that have happened in that division since Tranmere last performed there eighteen years ago.
For Tranmere, the second half was excruciating but the appetite of Tottenham’s players deserves admiration. Descriptions of each goal could follow but that might be a waste of time and space because each one was similar, featuring dribbles, sharp passing and accurate finishing.
Llorente made it 2-0. Aurier made it 3-0. Son made it 4-0. Then Llorente scored another two. Son was having the most fun, leaving vapour trails on a cold night and only traces of where he had been.
His movement was just too good. Kane decided to get involved as well and with a chip, Tottenham’s dismantling of Tranmere was finally complete. And it did feel like a crime scene after all. independent