Jonjo Shelvey's boneheaded red card paves way to three points for Tottenham

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Newcastle United is back in the big time, and for 45 minutes on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the northeast of England, the club’s return to the Premier League was going swimmingly. Tottenham, the visitors, were visibly frustrated. At 0-0 coming out of halftime, an opening day point seemed possible, if not likely.

Then Jonjo Shelvey happened. And in this case, that wasn’t a good thing.

Shelvey, unprovoked, stood on the ankle of Dele Alli, was rightly shown a red card, and probably cost his team the game. Just over 10 minutes later, Alli broke the deadlock with a lunging left-footed volley, and Spurs, then in control, went on to win 2-0.

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Nothing comes easy in the Premier League, and especially not to Tottenham Hotspur on the league’s opening weekend. Spurs hadn’t scored multiple goals in an opener this decade, hadn’t taken three points since Eric Dier’s 93rd-minute winner at West Ham three years ago, and had generally taken weeks, if not months, to hit their stride.

So when Mauricio Pochettino’s side labored through 45 minutes at St. James’ Park on Sunday, its shortcomings weren’t surprising. Spurs toed the line between patient and lethargic, and became frustrated by a resolute Newcastle 4-4-2.

Space and creativity were at a premium. Harry Kane and Alli were stifled, Christian Eriksen resorted to speculative 30-yard efforts, and the fullbacks found no joy down the flanks. Moussa Sissoko — as a former Newcastle player, booed every time he touched the ball — was, as per usual, ineffective.

But shortly after the break, blood rushed to Shelvey’s head. The stamp, if you want to call it that, was surely calculated. Shelvey made sure to make it look innocuous from afar, while also making sure to dig his studs into Alli’s ankle. The referee keenly spotted the England international’s intention, and reached for his back pocket.

Dele Alli reacts to Jonjo Shelvey’s stamp. (Reuters)
Dele Alli reacts to Jonjo Shelvey’s stamp. (Reuters)

So off went Shelvey, on came Heung-Min Son for Sissoko, and just over 10 minutes later, Tottenham had its breakthrough courtesy of some telepathic understanding between Eriksen and Alli:

Ben Davies, in at left back for the injured Danny Rose, added a second nine minutes later at the end of an intricate series of one-touch passes.

From there, Spurs cruised. Kane really should have made it 3-0 late on when he was played through by Son, but his low shot came straight back off the post. On the other end, Newcastle rarely tested Hugo Lloris. Spurs shut up shop, kept the ball well, and concluded the day with 73 percent possession.

Tottenham, which hasn’t spent a single pound in the transfer window thus far, handed a Premier League debut to 20-year-old right back Kyle Walker-Peters — not to be confused with Kyle Walker, who was sold to Manchester City for £50 million. And with Sissoko getting the start ahead of Son, the visitors were unbalanced in the first half.

Their attack route often involved Walker-Peters pushing high up the right flank and Mousa Dembele dropping into the space that had opened up as a result of the right back’s runs forward. Sissoko switched to the left after 15 minutes and hugged the touchline, while Eriksen and Alli operated in the middle of the field in front of Dier and behind Kane. But Newcastle had no trouble coping with that attacking structure, and Tottenham’s ball movement was insufficiently crisp.

Spurs seemed to be feeling their way into the game, but having trouble doing so. The sending off changed everything — the game became condensed in the attacking third, but gaps were now present and exploitable. Eventually, Tottenham’s high-powered attack exploited them.

There will be some concerns about the inability of last season’s runner-up to penetrate Newcastle before the red card. But Spurs have their first multi-goal win on the league’s opening weekend since last decade, and for now, that’s all that matters.

It’s also more than Chelsea, last year’s champion, can say heading into next Sunday’s showdown at Wembley.

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