Tottenham have moved on to the round of 16, but does it have to be that difficult?

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Was it ever really in doubt? Except, of course, for all those moments in the first 45 minutes when they looked completely and utterly in doubt, when Tottenham produced an incredibly cautious first half in Marseille but still had enough drive to secure what ultimately felt like a useless win. painful.

Three points put them at the top of Group D, in the hat for whatever might happen in that strange and distant place known as the second half of the season. And whatever the mode of victory, this is a significant moment.

Related: Lenglet and Højbjerg complete the Spurs comeback in Marseille to win the group

Failing to get past this group would have been a devastating blow: financially, but also in terms of weight and luster. For Antonio Conte there is the question of the underlying relevance, of still being a player in this thing. Spurs are third in the league and in the knockout stages. Their transition here was difficult, with key players absent and Conte glaring from the stands.

This is tangible progress. Perhaps the sight of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, in agony, drained, out of his mind after scoring a spectacular last-second winning goal could also offer a kick-start to the season.

Is that enough though? Spurs are also the 10th richest football team in the world. And this win will also raise questions, mainly some basics of style and intent, about how exactly the Spurs want to do it, how they want their football to be.

Conte is a real managerial paradox. Here is a charismatic, vibrant and glitzy presence, whose teams exist in a fiercely controlled state of caution; whose wild sideline gymnastics is like a mocking counter-comment on the rigidly exercised nature of his kick.

How exactly does this act of vanity work? At the very least, does it have to be that hard? The Stade Vélodrome is a cauldron place, all in all son and enlightenmentère and theatrical waves of noise. But Marseille are not an intimidating side, fifth in Ligue 1 right now and last in Group B at the start of the game.

Son Heung-min is helped out of the field in the first half when the Spurs failed to use the striker Photograph: Christophe Simon / AFP / Getty Images

This was a surprisingly balanced group on Matchday 6, partly because it wasn’t a great group. None of these teams are true champions. The Spurs are the only ones currently in the top three of their national championship.

So this was an evening to be active from the start, to force the moment. Tottenham, well, Tottenham sat deep in his flat back five, three front midfielders. This is the way of this team. They want to play less football, not more, to win counter-thrust, playing just enough and not more. Is this really how this thing works now?

Conte did something unusual, starting with the reversed full-backs, Ryan Sessegnon on the right, Ivan Perisic on the left. The net effect was to amplify the threat to the outside, particularly from Sessegnon’s side. And the Spurs’ intentions seemed pretty obvious at first terrible. Make the game boring. Take the kick out of this. A foul, an interruption, dead ends, severed toes. All of this is fine. Their greatest comfort at that stage was the bluntness of Marseille’s last pass.

Spurs lost Son Heung-min, shaken after a violent aerial challenge, although by then he had completed a pass in 28 minutes on the pitch. And once again they have managed to do the strange trick of being cautious, deep, double-sided, but also strangely porous and brittle. Is this worth sharing with Europe’s elite teams? Where do you hope to go? In the end Marseille scored. Chancel Mbemba’s header was beautiful.

The tremor of the Spurs in the corner is less so.

And through that there was a familiar sadness in watching Harry Kane on this team. He wanders those spaces, looking for stray balls. It’s just a kind of existence in search of food, living off one’s wits, pushing that cart through an empty landscape. At first Son picked up the ball, ran forward, saw only Kane surrounded by white T-shirts, then turned and ran back – towards what exactly? – before you find yourself surrounded.

Related: Salah and Núñez score to bring Liverpool back to win against Napoli

But Tottenham changed, abruptly, at the start of the second half. The full backs had moved on to their stronger sides. The midfield played more aggressively. The spurs have been transformed. I mean, they looked like a football team here to show something of themselves. There was also something pleasant about Clément Lenglet who scored the equalizer, excellent in the evening, happy with his moment and, let’s face it, a quiz in preparation for years to come. Spurs’ last nine goals all came in the second half. It seems like an oversight or a misreading of the rules.

There is also the first half. It is allowed.

From there the second half was thrilling, but thrilling in a way that shouldn’t have been required. When the Spurs passed the ball and showed offensive ambition, it was clear that Marseille were there for the taking.

Rodrigo Bentancur was classy and determined, too good a midfielder to simply be called to sit. Højbjerg won it to death with a wonderful ending. One year after Antonio’s age, here there is the possibility of building something.

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