Why have Tottenham failed to step up a level this season?
The fabled ‘next level’ that almost every Tottenham Hotspur fan was talking about at the start of the season simply hasn’t materialised. Poor performances in Europe – summarised by a dreadful ninety minutes at home to Leverkusen at Wembley – combined with poor performances in the league, like dropping points at Bournemouth and West Bromwich Albion, combined with already being out of the trophy that’s probably their best chance of silverware this season in the League Cup, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable – although it would be extreme in every sense of the word – to suggest that by early November, the Lilywhite’s season is doomed to inevitable failure.
Few were suggesting that Spurs had a realistic chance of winning the league anyway. Before the Manchester City game at White Hart Lane, only the most optimistic fans and the odd pundit thought they had a chance. Afterwards, there was hope from a wider fanbase – and with good reason. Inflicting Pep Guardiola’s first defeat in English football was big, but the way Spurs played that day was arguably even bigger. Pochettino’s youthful, energetic side simply outplayed a side comprised of some of the world’s best players.
But since then, they’ve failed to reach those heights again. Draws away at West Brom, Bayer Leverkusen and Bournemouth followed, scoring just once in all three games, before a League Cup defeat to Liverpool, in which Vincent Janssen’s penalty was the main highlight, and dropping points at home to Leicester, who had one shot on target in the whole game. But for Janssen’s penalties, Spurs have scored once in the last five games, and once from open play in the last six.
This is the form of sides facing relegation, not those competing for the top places in the league. Of course, nobody is suggesting that Spurs will be even mildly threatened by relegation come the end of the season, but the lack of creativity and goal-scoring nous when Harry Kane isn’t on the pitch is worrying. Christian Eriksen has been below par all season, although there is undeniable quality there, while Dele Alli’s performance is clearly hindered the most by the lack of Kane – Vincent Janssen’s game appears completely alien to the young Englishman, and this is in total contrast to the natural compatibility and understanding between Alli and Kane.
The positive that Spurs can take is that despite missing their best defender in Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen has been nothing short of sublime in his absence and Spurs’ defensive record remains fantastic. Another factor that doubtless contributed is that Hugo Lloris has, yet again, done wonders between the sticks for Spurs this season, but a reliance on a world-class goalkeeper is simply unhealthy and won’t last all season.
The biggest issue for Spurs is that they are easy to play against at the minute. Gone are the days when teams would tire after 70 minutes – such are the physical advances of players and the way they’re coached at the top level, that running opponents into the ground simply doesn’t work at the top level. The players capable of picking open defences are short on form. The one player who Spurs look to in times of need has been injured, but returns for the North London derby today, in Harry Kane.
The limited funds available in the transfer window – most of which was spent pathetically on Moussa Sissoko, a player who will not, based on his current form, ever justify a £30 million price tag in the current market – were not spent on players who provide game winning moments out of nothing.
There’s no superstar in the current Spurs squad and they’re being punished for that; working hard in games doesn’t win points. Of course, any side would struggle with their first choice striker and best defender injured and their attacking midfielders underperforming. Manchester City, for example, look much weaker without Sergio Aguero, and with Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan misfiring.
But truly big teams with title ambitions still find a way to win games. ‘Winning without playing well’ was so often a mantra associated with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, and of title winners of bygone years. It arguably still is; Leicester’s run last year is a testament to this – the streak of 1-0 wins in the back end of the season won them the league. This is what Spurs have to learn to do this season – they appear to have spent so long trying to win well, that they’ve forgotten how to win dirty. The sad truth is for Spurs fans, though, is that until they can do this, they just won’t win domestic or European titles.
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