Tottenham’s form since January has been only just been above relegation standard, the consequence of allowing a squad to go stale. It’s a familiar story…
In one of those neat quirks that are ideal for a football writer looking for a nice juicy slice of narrative pie, and a conveniently framed statistic to illustrate a point, it was after the previous time Tottenham played Leicester that their league form started to drop off a cliff.
A 3-1 win at Wembley over the Foxes felt relatively routine at the time, a Son Heung-min goal garnishing the victory that technically kept them in the title race, five points behind Manchester City with a game in hand. Feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
Since then, Tottenham’s league form has been abysmal. In 18 games they’ve managed just 19 points: five wins, nine defeats, four draws. Over a season that works out at about 40 points, which would have been enough for 15th place last season. They haven’t won away since January. Those five victories were against Crystal Palace (twice), Brighton, Huddersfield and Aston Villa. That’s one side who got relegated, one who avoided relegation by two points and one who was newly-promoted, with the two Palace victories admittedly reasonably impressive given their form.
Still, the only two ‘top six’ sides they’ve beaten since the start of last season were Manchester United last August, when they were halfway down the Jose Mourinho hill of despair, and Chelsea in November, a terrific performance which actually inflicted Maurizio Sarri’s first defeat in England.
There’s a certain amount of cherry-picking in all of this. We haven’t mentioned thumping wins over Bournemouth and Everton. We haven’t mentioned coming within seconds and a freak Toby Alderweireld own-goal of denying Liverpool a win in March. We haven’t mentioned the minor detail of reaching the Champions League final.
But it’s clear now that the increasingly surreal road to Madrid was a coat of gold paint on a car with a rusting engine. Which isn’t to say it didn’t matter: of course it mattered, it was the Champions League final. But it masked the deeper problems within the squad.
The same mistakes are being made, familiar frailties are being exposed. Saturday was the third game in the last four they have given up a lead, and the staleness of these players is being repeatedly emphasised.
Tottenham still quite clearly have some excellent players, but they’re broadly the same excellent players as they have been for some years. They finally made a few signings this summer, but they were too late: it’s a squad that has needed a refresh for a few years now, and impact of their inactivity is only truly being felt now.
In a strange way there are parallels with Manchester United. The current crisis at Old Trafford is partly to do with having a manager who shouldn’t be in the job, but the root cause is the decay in the squad that was allowed to take hold when Sir Alex Ferguson was manager.
Back then, the Glazers were unwilling to spend the sort of money that a club like Manchester United should spend, protected from the consequences by a generational genius manager and Robin van Persie’s career year. But once Ferguson left and Van Persie declined, the rot became more obvious.
Clearly the two situations are very different in many respects, but at its core they are two clubs who have been able to excuse a failure to revitalise their squads because two brilliant managers have made those squads overperform.
In United’s case it took Ferguson’s departure for it all to start going wrong, but with Spurs the catalyst might just be that Mauricio Pochettino has been there for too long. His whole public demeanour is that of a deeply irritated man, and perhaps the biggest concern came after their Champions League draw with Olympiacos when he said his team “didn’t respect the plan”, which sounds an awful lot like a diplomatic way of saying “they didn’t listen to me.” Which is the sort of thing that can and will happen when the manager has been there for so long.
In Rafa Honigstein’s book about Jurgen Klopp, Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke explained the conversation the club had in Klopp’s final season, in which it was decided to make a change. “We had agreed that things had run their course,” he said. “It wasn’t a case of his effect on the team having worn off or anything like that, but seven years was a very long time. We had felt it for a while. No one had dared to admit it.”
Nobody dares admit that Pochettino’s time is up either. Maybe it isn’t, and Pochettino hasn’t been at Spurs for quite that long: this is his sixth year, but his squad this season has five first-team regulars who were at the club when he arrived, six if you count Ben Davies and that isn’t including Eric Dier or Erik Lamela. Three more – Son, Dele Alli and Toby Alderweireld – came the following summer. It’s quite possible that familiarity has merely brought apathy.
In a few years, or maybe even now, we might look back on the summer of 2019 when Tottenham and Pochettino should have had a difficult conversation.
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