Falling short, standing tall
A must win game at Sunderland. Much like Bournemouth and W.B.A away. Aren't all games must win? Hindsight is a wonderful tool to aid with exaggerating emotion after a disappointing result. There's nothing wrong with being frustrated of course. We expect a lot from this team because we know what they're capable of. However, every dropped point is always going to pose questions relating to progression and weakness. Why couldn't we find a way to win?
In some far off parallel universe, a utopia, we'd win every game. That's never going to happen in this one for reasons that don't need to be stated. Every team is fighting to win or survive. Out-smarting or simply demolishing an opponent, week in week out, is what has you sitting at the top. For all the pre-match preparation and whatever looks good on paper, football games are still isolated events and they don't all pan out the way they should.
There was effort at the Stadium of Light. It wasn't polished. We couldn't muster up enough creativity to break down their defence. They had resilience and men behind the ball. We lacked any sustained aggression and movement. The game felt like it was played out at an agreed level of mundane. The first half was instantly forgettable. The second half barely an improvement. Mauricio Pochettino post-game pretty much nailed what we all know. It wasn't good enough. Be it, the starting eleven or the delayed substitutions.
Hindsight will push regret to the forefront but regardless of results elsewhere, we should only be focused on what we do at all times. As last season proved (as any season proves), we have no control over our rivals and their own insecurities. This team is no longer fledgling. We've raised expectancy beyond anything we've known for generations. We're maturing, but we're falling short for a reason. Why?
Take a look at the present (ignoring the previous campaign or any given 1990s misadventure which remains a popular reference point of comparison, be it one that carries little relevance). We've only lost two league games. We still have one of the best defences. Our strength in players and tactics give us a backbone to allow us to be in a position where we can be gutted about dropping two points against lowly opposition. The sense of entitlement here isn't born from arrogance. We know we can do better. We're aiming high. We all understand the importance of a lost point here and there. They add up.
Our first eleven are supreme when bang on it. When we're in the midst of a slump, we find a way back to regaining form. This isn't old Tottenham where winning a few games was the anomaly, the illusion. We are one of the best sides in the country and deserve the plaudits for it. Hence why games where we under perform are digested with angst when perhaps it's showcasing (positive viewpoint) just how close we are from going to contenders (forever chasing the team above us) to potential winners.
It's a thin line and to sprinkle ye old perspective all over it, had we beaten Sunderland and WBA and Bournemouth and whatever other result was deemed a wasted opportunity, we'd be capable of winning the league. Why does that thin line still exist? Well for starters, it exists because we're not quite good enough to get past it. Yet.
On a night like the one at Sunderland, there's no get out of jail type of player. Although we do have capabilities for producing moments involving limbs and scenes. Some of our key men have been instrumental. They've routinely got us out of sticky situations in the past. However, there's a technical argument that would suggest it was still a collective team effort that allowed us to score any given last minute winner. That the teams spirit and our guile is what makes the difference. This grand resurgence, this push that comes from never giving up, it happens because the core of the side make it happen. That in amongst a poor outing, the players still force a game changing moment, together. Sometimes. Not at Sunderland.
So when we do drop collectively and there's a struggle to dictate the tempo in our favour, where do we look for that slice of special?
There's very little on the bench. Is the issue fixed by acquiring a 'Bale' type of catalyst? Or is the issue fixed by time? By waiting, possibly, another season for the squads mentality to scale up to a higher level? I said earlier that we're no longer fledgling but that doesn't mean we're not grafting through a steep learning curve. All of this, it's brand new territory. Not for all players (some of which have top tier experience outside of England), but as a team and manager and fanbase - it's new. Even when we're bang on form, there's imperfections. Although to be grounded for a moment, supporters generally expect the world. Nothing is perfect, in life or football. Still, this team has a lot more to offer and the delivery is a constant topic of contention.
That doesn't excuse our failings. Not in the sense of perpetually accepting that we're still learning without ever finding a near permanent fix. It doesn't mean we should all huddle and hug and wait for next season and hope for the best. Poch fixed the defence (his first act as our coach) and then the midfield. The wing-back nature of our transitions and the bulk of our centre means that the front 3/4 have the freedom to express. Except sometimes, it's a touch of the Mona Lisa. Frown or smile, you don't quite know. It's that final part that requires completion.
Personally, I don't see this club sitting back and feeling sorry for itself. We don't allow stagnation. There is no comfort zone, everyone involved is self-aware and always seeking to correct mistakes. If those mistakes are reoccurring, then the problem isn't one that can be resolved with immediacy (even if our intentions are to do just that). Hate to say the P-word out loud, but patience has proved to be a necessity. It's been the mother of invention time and time again. At least in Poch's tenure as the Tottenham gaffer.
Everyone involved knows that football has a habit of shifting and brutally cutting short something you wish had longevity. But the momentum is there. From last season into this one, we're not letting go of the desire to achieve everything that we want. This is fuel, this drives us forward. The despondency, isn't a callback to the past, it's a shout out to what the future can be, if those failings are eradicated. Those frowns will be smiles if we endeavour to create a masterpiece.
Of course, it's problematic when you cite 'time' especially as we don't know how much of it we have left. Hence why living in the here and now is the bread and butter for most fans. Poch could be poached. Players could ask to leave. Time doesn't care for romanticised notions.
The holy grail is to perform consistently with an intensity that has every game truly feel like it's do or die yet be in control and knowingly ruthless enough to win. Not to get side-tracked, but I wonder if Chelsea being so far ahead (much like Leicester was) means it dulls the essence of a true title battle. Last season, we did the chasing but were never in a position to truly change the course of history. Mainly thanks to their early season run (much like Antonio Conte's side). I wonder how we'd all cope with a true test - being sat top several points ahead of second spot. That's pressure we've never felt. I need that in my life.
Everyone seemed to struggle for pomp against David Moyes below average relegation fodder. You can't really do much when that happens because there's no way you can argue against the reality of the result; If you don't win, it's because you don't deserve to, you haven't done enough.
Score a lucky goal or one from something out of nothing and that very same performance will be labelled with a 'this is what champions do, win when they don't play well' tag. Being able to find a way no matter what and do so consistently - this wins you league titles. We don't quite have that aura yet. But it's not an impossibility to suggest we won't, one day soon.
This question of game-changers (the lack of) still exists and for now it's the very obvious solution* to all of the above. Even though we have some wonderfully inventive players, as a generalisation, they are cogs in a machine, all parts reliant on the one next to them. If everything is working, the machine is magnificent. It's that synergy we can all appreciate that has given us the empowerment to compete. If the cogs lack motion then we rage against the machine.
*The massive caveat here is that if we - collectively - step up to that next level, then we'll have enough about us to see off teams without relying on a single individual. Although having that special individual is still required for the upper echelon encounters against the best teams when you still might need that something extra to win you the game. Let's not downplay the potential the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and co possess in being able to produce this expectancy. But let's also not leave anything to risk.
We're still back to needing a Gasocigne. Ginola. van der Vaart. Bale. Our next stage of evolution requires that game-changer - no matter what. We need someone that isn't reliant on his teammates to produce that little bit of magic, yet still fit into the team without upsetting the equilibrium. Someone to get us out of those sticky situations on those rare occasions.
Spurs need to monopolise if we're going to fulfil our potential. Collect enough get out of jail cards and we'll be swaggering down the Park Lane. Until then, it's back to the graft.