Just as Tottenham Hotspur fans everywhere were celebrating the humiliation of North London rivals Arsenal yesterday, and all that entailed – including a memorable Arsenal Fan TV night – they were brought crashing down to earth with a lagging, lacklustre and lethargic performance on Thursday night against Belgian side KAA Gent, who are – without too much disrespect – a very average side, in a very average league.
The game was an extension of the continental nightmare that Spurs have gone through this season, beginning with shambolic performances, in a very winnable Champions League group, that saw them eventually come third, winning two games out of the five.
But what’s actually going wrong? It’s a combination of a mixture of factors – the most pressing of which is the fact that the second-string players at White Hart Lane simply are not good enough. This isn’t Spurs in melt-down, mind, but it’s an assertion that has to be made if the club is to make steps forward in coming years.
Mauricio Pochettino has implemented a 3-4-3 formation at times this season that has been extremely effective, with Kyle Walker and Danny Rose offering an attacking threat, the defensive security of a defensive partnership that featured the previously infallible Toby Alderweireld and his compatriot Jan Vertonghen, while the free-scoring Harry Kane and Dele Alli looked to have perfected their understanding of the other’s game.
Now, this is excellent when everybody’s fit, or if injured players can be replaced by reserves that do not compromise the effectiveness of the system – and this is key.
Ben Davies may be defensively sound, but if he cannot offer a threat moving forwards – he has proven on numerous occasions that he can’t – then playing him in the left-wing back slot is a stupid mistake that inhibits the way the squad play.
With Jan Vertonghen’s injury, Spurs have been unable to find anyone to step in; the ever-present Eric Dier partners Alderwerield, but the third defender is either Kevin Wimmer, who’s been nothing short of diabolical this season, or Cameron Carter-Vickers, who Pochettino clearly doesn’t think is ready.
So, the fault is in Spurs’ inability to bring in players that provide backup that would fit the system. For example, the despised Alberto Moreno would probably be a better fit at Spurs than Ben Davies, because of the importance of the attacking function of the wing-backs not just in the 3-4-3, but also in the acclaimed 4-2-3-1.
Transfer business on the whole at Hotspur Way has been pretty atrocious in the last twelve months, Victor Wanyama aside, and nothing personified this better than a characterful Moussa Sissoko performance on Thursday, in which the Frenchman proved himself as the heir to Ali Dia, except with a greater tendency to get involved – much to the travelling Spurs fans’ dismay.
Of course, manager Mauricio Pochettino must not avoid taking a portion of the blame. The Argentine was unable to motivate his players to exact the required level of performance, or was naive to the way that Gent would play – it’s not the first time Spurs have come unstuck against a side who have set up to counter the dynamic press employed by the Argentine head coach.
It remains frustrating that this is a problem the manager and his team have been unable to find a solution to; Spurs seem reliant on a piece of magic from one of their midfielders against such sides. But, with the team selection as it was, it’s difficult to see what Pochettino could have done differently – it isn’t him on the pitch, after all.
Spurs were bad, really bad, on Thursday, and such performances haven’t been anomalies this season against sides who have countered the press well – and for this, give Genk credit. While Thursday night’s victors may sit mid-table in Belgium’s top league, they regularly play a 3-4-3 and Spurs came unstuck against the system, which manager Hein Vanhaezebrouck has clearly drilled into his players successfully.
Even then, an almost full-strength Tottenham Hotspur side should be rolling such teams over comfortably. As it is, they’ve got an uncomfortable home tie at Wembley with which to turn over a deficit, while Genk will travel to the capital in high spirits, ready for the biggest game of many of their players’ careers.
The final factor worth talking about is the mentality of the squad. Pochettino discussed this in his pre-match conference; it’s difficult to overturn a ‘losing’ mentality and to create a team with a winning mindset may even be beyond the Argentine’s skill set.
But it seems that Spurs are serial bottlers, especially in big games: home to a ten man Arsenal side, at 2-1 up when victory would have put them top of the league; *that* game in Newcastle against an already relegated side when victory would have ensured second place; at home to Leverkusen in the Champions League when defeat wasn’t really an option.
Spurs are either really, really good in these games or mess things up horribly, and it’s the latter all too frequently. And that’s just the general mentality of the squad. More specifically, travelling in Europe seems to constantly undermine performances, with Spurs not having won away in the Europa League since 2008.
The days of most success came when the exquisite Luka Modric, the mastery of Rafael van der Vaart and the unbelievable talent of Gareth Bale came to the fore – those players were almost meant for the big European occasions, and it’s no surprise that Modric and Bale have gone on to have glittering careers at Real Madrid, while van der Vaart came from the Spanish giants. They all relished the European stage in a way the current crop of stars haven’t managed.
European football has become a burden instead of a joy at White Hart Lane. Perhaps the only thing that may cause this to change will be trophies, and more game time, especially as Spurs have a notably young squad, but regardless, there are deficiencies that have yet to be filled.
If Spurs are to overcome this apparent mental block, then they could also pursue such talents in the transfer window – just think what could have been achieved with a figure of around £30,000,000 in last summer’s transfer window had the money not been spent on a talent-less Frenchman at Newcastle.
Oh, the joys of being a Spurs fan.