Tottenham Hotspur: seemingly aimless in the long-term, clearly crashing in the short-term

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It may be a bit reactionary to say so after a disastrous last few weeks for Tottenham Hotspur, but their exit to RB Leipzig in the Champions League last 16 truly rung the alarm bells amongst the White Hart Lane faithful and perhaps already signals the failure of Mourinho’s tenure.

Under the tenure of José Mourinho, appointed as manager last November after the sacking of Mauricio Pochettino, their on-pitch performances have been largely been unconvincing, with largely disappointing results to match, however there have been intermittent moments where one thought it might be the start of something. Given these moments were often wins of a more gritty style, such as the 2-0 home win over reigning champions (although not for much longer) Manchester City in February, it admittedly didn’t signpost the start of a grand rebuild which promises attractive football and trophies along the way, but at least something. A style. An identity, which seems to be the prerequisite for any ‘successful’ club in football to have in the modern game.

But alas, the 4-0 aggregate defeat to Die Roten Bullen confirms the malaise over the last 6 games, all of which have been wretched performances, but it also means that another trophyless season is on the cards for Tottenham, a drought which even the great Pochettino was unable to end after defeat in the 2019 Champions League final, defeat in the 2015 League Cup final and narrowly missing out on winning the 2015/16 and 2016/17 Premier League titles.

Mauricio Pochettino celebrates with his Tottenham squad after they dramatically knocked out Ajax in last season’s Champions League semi-final

They have never won the European Cup or Champions League, their best finish being runners-up last season, and were easily dispatched out of this. Their last major honour was the 2008 League Cup, a competition in which they were knocked out of under Pochettino earlier this season to Colchester United, a side a whole 64 places below them in the English football pyramid. Their last FA Cup victory was in 1991, a competition where the were knocked out on penalties at home to Norwich City (who are bottom of the Premier League) in the last 16. I attended this game myself, and it was embarrassing to see Tottenham with no clear game plan as they put in an abject performance, exacerbated by off-the-pitch issues after the game with Eric Dier-gate. In attack and attacking transition, they had seemingly no other plan than to charge forward with the front 4 of Lucas Moura, Dele Alli, Steven Bergwijn and Giovani Lo Celso and hope for some individual brilliance to unlock the Norwich defence, nor did they have any coherent defensive structure other than sit deep and hack it clear when it comes. This becomes particularly worrying upon considering their opponents, a Norwich side bottom of the league who played them off the pitch with energetic, driving runs from their full backs and their wide forwards of Todd Cantwell and Emi Buendía causing havoc in the half spaces. What’s more, Norwich didn’t have any ‘heart in their mouth’ moments defensively, a particularly concerning fact for Tottenham when the (not so) titanic Grant Hanley was one of the opposition centre halves. How Norwich didn’t finish the game off before the shootout was a miracle. This season’s FA Cup was an excellent opportunity to win a trophy, especially when considering that Mourinho is one of the few ‘top 6’ managers to regularly field their strongest XI in the competition and that runaway league leaders Liverpool had gone out of the Cup the night before. Finally, their last league title was in 1961, and even though Mourinho’s renowned ‘second season bounce’ could kick in (he was won the league in his second managerial season in 5 out of his last 6 managerial gigs), this seems incredibly unlikely with the 100-point threshold for Champions of Europe’s elite leagues becoming more pertinent. Tottenham are desperate for any trophy, but since their last League title all the other ‘top 6’ members have won the Premier League title (with Liverpool’s maiden crowning this season inevitable, pending major global issues) and other league winners have included Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa (albeit both becoming European Champions subsequently). The list also however includes Leeds United, Everton, Derby County, Leicester City, Blackburn Rovers and Ipswich Town (yes, League One Ipswich have won the league more recently than Tottenham). One can see why they’re desperate.

Legendary manager Bill Nicholson with his League and Cup double for Tottenham in 1961

As previously mentioned, Tottenham made the Champions League final last season but were extremely poor for the majority of the 2018/19 season, only finishing inside the top 4 due to Arsenal and Manchester United’s form diving off a cliff in April and May. The evidence of staleness in the squad and the deterioration of the effectiveness of Poch’s tactics was already there to see. Although it is nigh-on impossible to let a manger go who had just completed arguably the side’s greatest achievement since the League and Cup double in 1961, it was a mistake not to recognise that the final was the end of an era for Tottenham, and it could have saved the acrimonious end to Poch’s tenure between August and November this season. Similar examples exist over the last 10 years; the DFB’s failure to recognise that Germany’s World Cup win in 2014 was the end of an era for Joachim Löw, after which a huge demise followed, similarly the case for Spain and Vicente del Bosque after their unprecedented three tournament wins in a row in 2012.

But it’s not just the manager where the parallels can be found here, the players are stale too, like what inevitably happens to international sides. The entirety of the Tottenham squad is either stagnant, deteriorating or not growing fast enough. Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Sissoko, Lamela and Aurier have all lost a step, partially due to Poch’s departure but more importantly due to just getting older. Kane, Son, Dele, Dier, Sánchez, Davies, Foyth and Winks remain at the same level as 2 years ago, a worrying sign especially for players such as Kane and Dele who should be hitting the primer years of their career now. And, for those who are notably improving, it’s not at a rate fast enough to carry the team through this sticky patch (this is by no means a criticism). Oliver Skipp, Japhet Tanganga and Ryan Sessegnon are three exceptional young prodigies, the former being the man I hope will become England’s midfield anchor at the 2022 World Cup (or at the increasingly likely Euro 2021 for that matter), but are simply too young and raw to have the burden of carrying the team by themselves. Conversely, new additions such as Tanguy Ndombele have not had the desired effect, both tactically but more worryingly regarding attitude (see Jamie Carragher’s excellent analysis of this on Monday Night Football on the 9th March). All of these individual problems seemed to be the direct factor for the collapse of Poch’s high-pressing game which proved so effective in the first three quarters of his tenure, the tailing off of which made Tottenham performances by and large impotent since New Years’ Day of 2019.

Logically, Mourinho has come into solve this, surely at least in the short-term given his known 3 year expiry date, but their poor form on the pitch rightfully leaves Tottenham fans concerned, and it has to be boiled down to either inept tactics or poor man management, the latter of which he is becoming notorious for. However, problems emerge upon trying to pinpoint which of the two is more at fault. It seems unlikely that a two-time Champions League winning manager, off the back of a tenure at Manchester United where his tactical frailties were exposed and a subsequent year out to find out where he went wrong, would not learn new tactical tricks to add to his arsenal. At the same time, some of his man management since his arrival has been very sketchy indeed. His unwillingness to use Troy Parrott, albeit an 18-year-old, when there has been an injury crisis up front (rightfully) only solidifies the perception of him being unfairly reluctant to use exceptional youngsters when needed. Furthermore, his ceaseless yapping to the Press over the injury crisis at Tottenham (a ‘crisis’ which pales in comparison to that of other Premier League sides such as Aston Villa and Bournemouth) can hardly give confidence to those players who do start. His usage of this in the aftermath of the defeat in Saxony was evidence of this, brashly stating that all of the Leipzig 18-man squad for the game would get into Tottenham’s, a statement with eery similarities to his comments after Sevilla knocked his Manchester United out of the same stage of the competition 2 years ago. Considering this, it would seem his man management would be to blame, but this doesn’t account for Tottenham’s ad hoc, even aimless performances in virtually all of their games since his arrival, a ‘style’ which has been punished by Wolves, Norwich, Southampton and Leipzig, teams that, on paper, Tottenham are more than capable of sweeping aside. The two problems are most likely mutually reinforcing.

Whether sacking Pochettino was the correct move or not is up for debate, but what is clear is that the prime reason for Daniel Levy appointing Mourinho was a power-play; the ‘lads, it’s Tottenham’ attitude has died and they are now a formidable force on the continent, with the background of their new state of the art stadium, as they can now appoint one of, if not the biggest, managerial names in football. But this only works if Tottenham aren’t an easy subject of mockery on the field, which, frankly, at current they are, for the reasons discussed. Everyone seems to be revelling in Tottenham’s on field misery (this writer included) after their period of ‘punching above their weight’ seems to have come to an end. The ‘banter era’ of Tottenham may be restarting as many transfer windows are clearly needed to sort this mess out, regardless of the management situation.

Eric Dier runs into the stands to confront a fan after the defeat on penalties to Norwich in the FA Cup

But for now, Mourinho is in charge, and what used to be his Midas touch of guaranteeing trophies is very clearly waning, a factor crucial in appeasing the fans in the aftermath of his somewhat controversial appointment with their (understandable) thirst for a first trophy in 12 years. Not only is the short-term concerning, but their transfer dealings suggest that there’s no grand plan in place for when Mourinho’s tenure inevitably comes to an end in 3 years’ time.

Poch’s sacking signalled an end of an era, but this doesn’t look like it’s the start of a new one, either.

 

Thanks to Seb Stafford-Bloor of Football365 and FourFourTwo, and also to The Guardian’s Jonathan Liew. Images credited to The Independent, Tottenham Hotspur’s official website and the BBC. 

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