The Trouble with Tottenham
This is turning out to be the longest pre-season in history.
Mauricio Pochettino's men still haven't got going, although arguably we haven't looked imperious in Europe at any point in a fair few years. We are nowhere near the standards of peak time Tottenham. Yes, we remain hard to beat for most opposition that attempt to break us down (by mostly sitting deep and waiting for rare excursions). However, we are easy pickings for experienced quality like Monaco. We uncharacteristically showcase soft spots so tender, that feathers will fall into a coma if they dare to settle upon its heaving bosom.
It's a curious conundrum and it's one that has left us all scratching our heads, like a confused Glenn Hoddle, unable to work out what's gone (going) wrong when it's blatantly staring us in the face. We know what's gone wrong, right? Piecing it all back together has completely escaped the gaffer and players. For now.
Last year was the birth of a brave new world and it's one that had nothing to live up to. The previous season, Pochettino was working out which of the players he would be retaining whilst working methodically to implement a new ethos in training. What came before his arrival was another failed experiment. An epic downward spiral. New beginnings meant expectancy was in flux until we understood enough about our Argentine manager and his philosophy. Let's be honest, we all felt abused and tired of illusionary promises.
The maturity of the team - young and old - then allowed us to forge the spirited ballsy attitude to games he demanded. The togetherness, the team unity. The fitness regime and its output. All of it was glued together by the Poch press and the swarming, stylised stinging counter play. When you start to win games, you change the entire mindset of a team and in our case, a club. That philosophy becomes more than fanciful words and the supporters bind as one to back one and all.
Tottenham became Pochettino's Tottenham.
The momentum pushed us into a title race (although it was more of a chase and rival fans can pretend we bottled it but the reality is, Leicester City won it because they didn't). The point to this romanticised reminiscing is that it all came together because of how it came together.
The players reacted positively, brilliantly to their new coach. Spurs were reborn. We had the end of season blip (ultimately defined the conclusion but across the months before we were considered the best football team in England). It still served to remind everyone that we have imperfections. That isn't cause for depression, but it illustrates that if we wish to evolve and continue to step up a level - we have to improve and adapt. Constantly. We have to keep progressing. It's a lot to ask for especially because the circumstances that birthed this team were unique. Other teams around us will also look to better themselves. It's called a new season for a reason.
The blip was a mixture of a lack of measured rotation, the inability to cope with key players missing and general late season fatigue. Only twice in the season (ignoring the Fazio inspired League Cup exit), did I accept we got outplayed/out thought. The defeat at Upton Park and the last game of the season. It's remarkable, even if there is plenty of regret and paradoxical pride (Chelsea away). Yet in the present day, looking back at the fixtures home and abroad so far...we've not capitulated or played horrendously badly. We've just...not played that well. We've still not shaken off the repercussions of that blip.
That softness, the ease of which we've conceded goals in the Champions League, it's not what we expect from our team. It's not Tottenham of old either. That's such an easy knee-jerk to repeat. This is still Pochettino's team and his players. This is the comparison that should be made.
Why are we so timid when we know we can be ruthlessly disciplined?
Why are we under performing with such limp and lacklustre displays?
Why are cameos of our true capabilities left for the occasional appearance?
We look zapped of energy. Rhythm is a plodding mess. This is akin to Clark Kent in Superman II, having surrendered his powers, believing he can beat up the trucker in the diner and getting smacked up for his efforts.
What went wrong in Monaco?
We didn't play the strongest team we had available to select from. Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen two noticeable absentees. Both players are (allegedly) fit although with Danny Rose suspended for Saturday's game at Stamford Bridge and Ben Davies injured, Poch looks to have prioritised that game over the 'must not lose' European clash. Jan is our only available left-sided defender that can cover the full-back position (we can also go three at the back).
Although I read that our manager ruled Jan out for the derby, so (at the time of writing) I have no idea wtf is going on here. Walker was rested, which in itself is brain numbing. Only because this particular CL match was important. Even more so because the momentum we so desperately need is missing in action.
The football was again the opposite of finesse. Spurs have no bite, no composure. The discipline is gone. Cameos aside, there is no ever-present spearhead. Not in terms of a single player but as a team. Synergy isn't just a magical tag that's stated to wish away the discussion of tactical ploys and producing end product. It was a factual exhibit of evidence. Spurs are at their marauding best when all involved play at a shared standard. It all clicks from defence to attack. There's movement and touch and space. Watch us in recent games and it's fragmented, broken. Some players perform well (applaud Hugo Lloris) but others play at different levels of average. Tempo and groove is practically non-existent.
Again, it's not awful. It would be so easy to just say 'Oh God, we're horrific, we haven't got a clue' if we lost every game by two or three goals. It's easier to accept if you're just rubbish with no hope. It's harder to know what to think when we should be so much stronger. I know what we're meant to be doing but instead of doing it, we're like a bloke cutting shapes whilst everyone around him is dancing the Waltz.
What went wrong in Monaco is basically everything that hasn't been right so far this campaign.
It's still not a disaster. Well, the Champions League run has been a disaster for sure. I won't dispute that. We've not turned up at all. We've never looked convincing. Failing to lose our last group game will mean Europa League games at Wembley. We might have to win one of them in preparation for next seasons leagues games hosted there. What I mean by 'it's still not a disaster' is that we have the same players from last season. We have last season as the benchmark. If we continue to play like we do, we'll probably still end up 4th. Wanting more than that is the expectancy that Poch drilled into his team last time round. So desiring the same application and execution is imperative if we want to avoid emergency work.
The emergency work would be further investment. Of course, this is football. New players arrive every year and some leave or are pushed out because more refined quality is required. Maybe the circumstances of the 'title race' in 2015/16 was the perfect platform for Pochettino to mould his side but pushed us ahead of whatever schedule the coach had. Or perhaps football is about taking your chances, daring, rather than perpetually planning for the future. Of course, you'll only ever win the league if you're good enough or if you're good enough but equally more fortuitous than the sides you're contending with. What's happening now is the harsh consequence of the same evolution. A by-product of growth. It's the first real test for him and the players. A test he's attempting to pass by changing formation every game. Not going too well, is it?
There's too many changes resulting in no certifiable shape. It's out of his control (sort of) in terms of the amount of players we've not been able to select - especially when compared to last season when that peak time forcefulness was because of a consistent first team eleven. The new mantra at Spurs did a lot to fuel the push for improvement. It's easier to build that momentum into a tenacious hungry juggernaut. We hated losing games. Whereas presently, we seem to be accepting of it.
Maintaining it all, the test, it's a far greater challenge. We just haven't had that patch of form to settle down and kick on with it. With all the unavoidable rotation, it's not been kept tight and because of that, our football hasn't been fluid. Poch and his tinkering has left him (and us) dizzy.
I don't have an answer. I've often preached 'wait until the 15th league game' but we're almost there. Remaining unbeaten won't mean much if we're not winning games. I'm actually so distracted by all of this I've had no time to digest and mourn being knocked out of what has been a very dull CL campaign.
Sure, I could write another ten blogs about the players. I'll just be repeating myself from older blogs. So here's some snapshots of what we all know already.
Christian Eriksen is in the deepest of lulls. There is no influence or leadership. He has to make himself the difference maker. He has to own the turf around him. Yes, of course, sometimes he grafts and things go unnoticed but that's fine when the team are playing with pomp. Not so helpful when we're looking to the likes of him to instigate.
Mousa Dembele is still seeking that thunderous midfield dominance, clapping lightning blots at those that surround him like some ancient Greek God ruling his domain with playful ease. He's been superb at times but not every time. You can look to the players alongside him and the persistent changes to the midfield (from two to diamond). Then you can then refer back to my favourite world ever (synergy) and realise that if we don't line up in a certain way, it doesn't quite work. Which then has a knock on effect with how we move the ball around, how players rely on others when transitioning from defence to midfield to attack.
Of course, this is all for Poch to answer. We showed at the Emirates that we can actually produce solid football. Contained and controlled. But when you look at all the games, with ye old context, I can't ignore it. Even with my optimism. It's all too erratic.
Toby Alderweireld missing is a big loss. He is a rock, Ledley Kingesque in how much composure he oozes and he brings the best out of the players around him, Jan especially. Erik Lamela, love him or hate him, gives us that in-game eagerness to chase down every ball and inspire others to match his willingness. He also links up with Eriksen, gives the Dane someone to look for. You might not enjoy the discomfort and focus on his faults, but Lamela has proved to be essential. More so now, more than ever, because of the lack of energy from other players.
We do have more options available compared to last season. Some fit into the squad. Some are questionable in terms of improving with immediacy. Others have yet to immerse themselves. Questions will also be asked about whether we did enough of the right kind of business in the summer. Of course, considering the form of Poch in terms of how he handled his first season (removing deadwood) and then getting the very best out of players like Danny Rose...it's worth waiting. There's another train of thought here; If you almost come close to winning the league, the following season should be a continuation and not another transition. I'll counter that by saying, that is no longer how football works. It's far more competitive and unpredictable. Every season is a transition. For us, more so, because we're trying to achieve ambitions we've never come close to before. Even if we signed two world class superstars, we might still have to endure a period of rewiring.
Continuing with the snapshots.
Victor Wanyama has been a revelation. Sissoko has been a...I have no idea what a Moussa Sissoko is. It's obvious what he's meant to be but he's yet to give us that alternative surge of pace and directness from central positions when he's come off the bench. It's like watching a self-driving car that's gone rouge and developed its own AI and decided to off-road it's way to a destination. He's a central midfielder and not a winger.
Eric Dier has been out of sorts since the EURO's but has looked tidy in defence and then errs like he did the other night. Walker and Rose (two of our very best players) have recently dipped (although both have high standards and are equally immersed in physicality, battered and cluttered way too often by opposing players). Dele Alli is...well, a kid. That doesn't mean he's beyond criticism but he most definitely warrants protection. Even if he isn't on form he's the type of player that only needs a few seconds of alertness to change a game. The same can be said about Son. It's not obvious to me if Poch fancies him or not. He changed the game against West Ham. He should have scored against Monaco. He should be involved more often but should do so from a single starting position.
Vincent Janssen is struggling to be the striker we need. Some supporters are struggling to accept he's only twenty-two years of age and might need some time (especially as the players around him are also requiring time to rediscover their form). All of us are struggling to work out why we can't afford (not financially but with respect to squad dynamics) to have another 'ready made' forward to give us that missing spark. An Isco type. Of course, that inventiveness and imagination will only truly work if the shape of the team is strong enough to create the time and space to trick our way into goal scoring opportunities. Kane has only just returned too and having him back is imperative to the graft and quality we have to recapture.
We have some exceptional players but we're only ever exceptional when they all line-up in the starting eleven. That isn't such a bad predicament. But not having them all available at the same time gives us what we have today. Which is unremarkable and pedestrian. Although if this is a 'crisis', it's the best one we've ever had. What is a concern is the general attitude. I don't mean to dig at these players (many of which I absolutely adore) but as a group, they're not always pulling their weight. It's like the Champions League is nothing more than the Europa League in terms of what we've produced. There's no point in attempting to qualify for it as the be all and end all if this is how we go about our business. Of course, Pochettino and the players are probably looking at a bigger domestic prize and everything else is just a bonus.
Spurs have all the parts to the puzzle but very few of them are connected. You think you know what the final picture will look like but you can't be sure until the pieces are placed together. Once we start to regain recognisable shape we'll know if replacements are needed. Poch has to be so much more assertive. I get it, there's the learning curve, the continuing journey of self-discovery. I also get our frustrations (because we know how good we are and can be). Rival fans think we'll win the league in the next few seasons, that football has opened up at the top tier of the Prem. We're only two to three new signings away from achieving it. That's the scary part of all of this. Lose our balance and that potential is gone. Keep a cool head and reality is ours to shape. The puzzle won't solve itself. No-one involved can walk away from it. Us included.
We keep searching for that 'Man City' benchmark to be repeated. We need it repeated. We'll then need to follow it up with another two or three results of similar impact and presentation. Then we'll know with certainty that we're returning to normality. The longer the search is prolonged, the less likely a return to form will produce anything near to last seasons emotive roller-coaster in the league.
Pochettino gave us identity but we've gone incognito. This is still Pochettino's team. What we see is reflective of his management. The good and bad. The trick is to have less of the latter and more of the former. The Holy Grail that turns contenders into champions. This is the long haul. Maybe we did over achieve last season. Does it really matter when every season there's a new story arc with teams vying for a single starring lead role? If we did over-achieve then what's happening now shouldn't really be concerning you too much. You're expectations should be nerfed.
If you expect more regardless, it's because Poch gave you reason to and that expectation is what drives us forward - team and supporters together. If you think this is a 'crisis' or just a glorified slump then back the coach and players. Otherwise you're asking for this to be tagged early with another experimental failure label whilst we shift into another not so brave world and start over. Of course, this caveat is for the minority that can't handle the pressure. The vast majority see sense. It's now up to the gaffer to make sense of it all so that we can finally swagger into a stride that everyone at Spurs deserves to be part of.
For now, it's about the basics. It's about aligning the players we have available in a system that works without having to rotate for no apparent reason other than to rest players for key games. Every game is key. I don't know, maybe we need to return to the set-up we had last season and stick with it until it's rejuvenated and recognisable.
Is it that simple? Are we really this fine tuned and reliant on the key players? Is there more to it than injuries and loss of form? Are we missing that catalyst we all wanted before the season started? The game-changer? Something fresh that offers a new dimension?
Questions asked. Answers required.
The trouble with Tottenham?
Well, in a nutshell I reckon it's...