With so much optimism following the win against Manchester City at the start of October, it is difficult to articulate what has gone so badly wrong since.
One win in two months tells a story, and even that was via a fortuitous late comeback (against West Ham last weekend). Prior to that victory we had scored just four times in seven outings, three of which had come from the penalty spot.
The warning signs were there earlier in the season as well, when we were scraping wins against Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Middlesbrough. We also were comprehensively outplayed by Liverpool at home (certainly in the first half) and got away with an undeserved draw. Bar the games against Stoke and Manchester City, performances haven’t reached anywhere near the heights of last season and we have seen our deficiencies brutally exposed in the Champions League by Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen.
I’m fed up of hearing excuses about Wembley. Wembley is not the issue. It is a football pitch like any other and both teams have to deal with its dimensions and surface. The arguments that Pochettino’s pressing style is not suited to a pitch the size of Wembley would have more credence if we were actually implementing that high press elsewhere. The simple truth is that, bar the Manchester City game, the high press appears to have disappeared, which is baffling. A tactic which was so successful last season, and led to the most significant victory of this, appears to have been lost somewhere in the indecision of Pochettino’s formational changes of recent weeks.
Having played 4-2-3-1 for pretty much all of last season, we went to 3 at the back against Arsenal, which to my surprise worked very well. Pochettino should be commended for trying to find different solutions rather than sticking rigidly to his favoured formation, but when it doesn’t work he needs to react.
On Tuesday night it didn’t work. He adopted a narrow diamond in midfield, which is fine against a team that attacks down the middle but Monaco are not that team. Time and time again they savaged us down the flanks in the first half and, with the full backs offered no protection from midfield, Rose and Trippier were overloaded. It is easy to draw conclusions that Trippier was out of his depth at this level but I have a lot of sympathy with him as Pochettino did him no favours by isolating he and Rose against dangerous wingers and fast overlapping full backs.
It was an experiment that failed but I’m not criticising Pochettino for trying it. We got away with it time and time again on Tuesday before we eventually were punished in the second half. Pochettino had plenty of time to observe what was unfolding and react, including the half time interval. He froze. That’s where my criticism lies.
It is also fair to ask pointed questions on his decision to rest three key players for a “must win” match in a competition for which qualification was the culmination of all of our exertions last season. Wimmer performed with distinction last season alongside Alderweireld when Vertonghen was absent through injury. But he looks all at sea alongside Dier, who is far less familiar with and comfortable in that centre back role. He also chose to play a rookie in Harry Winks ahead of the much more experienced Christian Eriksen. One could argue that Winks deserved his chance given his performance against West Ham and, in fact, he was as good as any outfield player for Spurs on Tuesday night but it was a curious decision nonetheless. Regardless of Eriksen’s indifferent form (to put it politely) this season, he is one of few we have who can unlock a defence. Furthermore, statistics on Spurs often show that he covers more ground than any other player – his tireless running off the ball is fundamental to the way we play as a team.
It is true to say that injuries have not helped our plight. Our talisman Harry Kane missed two months through injury and we have been without Toby Alderweireld, who I regard as the best centre back in the Premier League, for several weeks too. Erik Lamela too has been missed. The much maligned Argentine really sets the tone for the Pochettino press (even if he is often slightly over zealous with his sliding tackles) and many supporters might only now start to realise his importance to the system.
However, all teams get injuries and they have to deal with them. We were particularly fortunate last year to have very few. This year we haven’t been so lucky. This is where you need the squad players – players on the fringes of the first team – to step up. It is fair to say that, bar Son’s hot streak of form in September and early October, they have not. The strength in depth is not there. Our bench has been full of inexperienced youth for much of the season, in stark contrast to our competition in the upper echelons of the Premier League.
The fact of the matter is that we didn’t capitalise on our Champions League qualification through the acquisition of high quality proven talent in the summer. Talent that would push the team on and build on the momentum we created last season. In 2011 when we last got into Europe’s elite competition, we captured William Gallas, Sandro and Rafael Van Der Vaart. This time, Victor Wanyama looks to be the only addition of any real class. Janssen is struggling to reproduce his Eredivisie form at a higher level, Sissoko was never worth the ludicrous fee paid on deadline day and the lesser spotted N’Koudou hasn’t taken his opportunities when selected. It could be argued that the squad is weaker this season after sending Bentaleb and N’Jie out on loan and selling Chadli, Townsend and Mason.
The resignation of Head of Recruitment, Paul Mitchell, at the start of August would indicate that he had lost patience with the Spurs hierarchy over signings. It is rumoured that he wanted Michy Batshuayi, now at Chelsea, but Levy wouldn’t break the wage structure to accommodate his £120k a week demands. The truth is that finances are restricted – the new stadium has clearly taken priority – and so we are not competing on a level playing field on transfers. There are only a certain number of Dele Alli’s out there and in the absence of any marquee signings, it will be down to Pochettino to overachieve with cheaper alternatives.
Champions League group stage elimination is clearly a disappointing setback in the evolution of this team. It is all the more disappointing as the draw for the group stage was relatively kind to us and we clearly didn’t show the rest of Europe what we are capable of. For the first time in his reign, questions are rightly being asked of Pochettino and he and his team are attracting some criticism.
Tottenham have the youngest team in the Premier League, one of the brightest young managers in world football (he doesn’t become a dud overnight), world-class training facilities at Bulls Cross and the largest club stadium in London due to be opened in just over 18 months. The club remain the only unbeaten team in the Premier League and currently sit just four points off the top (competing with clubs whose wage bills dwarf our own).
We’re moving in the right direction as a club and, although this feels like an opportunity missed and performances have disappointed of late, we must hope that the manager and players will learn from this chastening experience.
We must realise that last season was an overachievement. Leicester City’s miraculous feat has muddied the waters somewhat and made us all believe that anything is possible. But we must recognise it was a freak event. The fact that we couldn’t capitalise left us feeling deflated at the end of what was an excellent campaign; a feeling that was exacerbated by our complete collapse in the closing weeks of the season and capitulation at Newcastle that gifted Arsenal second place.
We now need to realign our expectations as fans. Aim high but don’t feel disconsolate if those heights aren’t realised. The next few years are about positioning ourselves as a force to be reckoned with over the long term. Let’s get behind Pochettino and his squad and fight this uphill battle together. As ever, COYS!