What has happened to Tottenham Hotspur?
Something is not right at the Lane
Cast your mind back to the Parc des Princes on March 6th this year. A shock 3-1 victory for Manchester United in the Champions League last 16 left the Paris Saint-Germain players strewn across the pitch in despair. Again they had fallen at the first hurdle in their pursuit for European glory, courtesy of a late, dubious penalty awarded after a wayward shot struck Presnel Kimpembe on the arm. The penalty was subsequently despatched by Marcus Rashford, completing a comeback that few people thought possible after a 2-0 loss at Old Trafford a week prior.
That moment left United no option but to hire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a permanently basis, putting the constant links with Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino to bed.
Could the decision to award United that penalty have cost Pochettino the United job, and subsequently destabilised Tottenham? Their results would suggest so.
Tottenham have won just three of their last 15 Premier League games stretching back to last spring. That is relegation form. Since the turn of the year they have looked unconvincing in the league, suffering uncharacteristic losses to Southampton, Burnley, West Ham, Bournemouth and now Newcastle United. The circus around Pochettino's potential exit has almost certainly played a part in this dip in form.
This football club reached a Champions League final hahaha pic.twitter.com/1NMsYDu8iP
— Simply (@Simply_Spurs) August 27, 2019
The very same Spurs side also reached the Champions League final, enduring their fair share of drama along the way. This run, which provided many Spurs fans with their happiest footballing memories to date, masked a problem which was rumbling beneath the surface.
Over the past eight months, Mauricio Pochettino's side have struggled to beat teams with the emphatic conviction they had in their final season at the old White Hart Lane or even in their first full season at Wembley.
Marginal victories due to late goals borne from individual brilliance are wonderful to watch as a fan, but when a team pushing to unseat the infinitely wealthy champions are only scraping victories against teams further down the food chain, something is wrong.
So far this season, and for much of last season, Spurs' play has been too predictable. There is a concerning pattern of sideways passing, lots of possession, but no penetration, and being sucker punched on the counter-attack. This issue is not helped by the absence of their best creator, Christian Eriksen, and their best defender, Jan Vertonghen, both of whom have been left out of every starting XI due to contract disputes.
They are leaking silly goals due to a Belgian-shaped hole in the piping of their backline, which Davinson Sanchez has failed to plug, with the lack of a midfield enforcer exposing his flaws.
"With all the players fit you struggle to find a starting XI," Pochettino said on Verthonghen's omission from the squad on matchday one, but Sanchez has not suddenly become better than the Belgian overnight. With the 32-year-old in the final year of his contract and the club reluctant to offer him a deal which meets his demands, there is clear politics at play.
New signings have arrived this season in Ryan Sessegnon, Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, who seems like a preemptive replacement for Eriksen. But there are still big problems in the squad, notably at right-back. The club did not replace Kieran Trippier, who, for all his defensive shortcomings, did offer the threat of consistently accurate crosses - a potent weapon against a low block.
A large chunk of their on-field issues can be rooted back to the sale of Kyle Walker and Moussa Dembele in tandem with the regression Danny Rose has suffered as a result of injuries. When Spurs were at their best, Walker and Rose would bomb up and down the flanks relentlessly, allowing Eriksen and Dele Alli to operate more centrally, where they can cause the most damage. Despite his name and evident talent, Kyle Walker-Peters does not offer anything like the same threat.
Central midfield is also an issue, with Pochettino struggling to find the right balance between Harry Winks, Moussa Sissoko and Tanguy Ndombele that Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele struck so perfectly in 2015/16.
But Spurs have overachieved in spite of these squad issues over a sustained period of time, until now, when things appear to have gone a bit stale.
One theory behind their current struggles is that Mauricio Pochettino has had his head turned. Having overseen Tottenham's journey from a middling Europa League side to Champions League finalists, he may now think he has taken the club as far as he can. His comments before last season's final would suggest so anyway, as he admitted it would be the perfect moment to “Close the five-year chapter and go home.”
Links to United may well have caused the Argentine a dilemma. The prospect of taking on a new project, rejuvenating a club in much the same state as the one he found Tottenham in but with more funds, would be appealing to any manager. That move never materialised, but may still be playing on his mind.
Another theory is that subconsciously, Spurs' players have become numb to the repetition of achieving beyond their means but having nothing to show for it. Two title challenges and a Champions League final is impressive given where the club were in 2013/14, but players will eventually grow bored. As Eriksen enters his late 20s, it is understandable that he may want to move on.
With a North London derby looming this weekend, fans will be hoping Pochettino puts politicking aside and fields his strongest team. With so much at stake and the margins for success to fine, Pochettino cannot afford to leave out his best players.
Uncertainty over senior players' future, bemusing team selection and a growing sense that they are swimming against the tide in pursuit of silverware have all played their part in creating the current mood of deflation in north-east London. A win at Arsenal on Sunday would calm the storm, but you can only paper over the cracks for so long.