Sunday’s derby between Spurs and Chelsea marked the first “big game” of the 2017-18 Premier League season, and so I was understandably quite excited for it. I headed to a local pub with a bunch of my friends for some late brunch and football, expecting Spurs to handle a severely depleted Chelsea side with relative comfort. Of course, as a Spurs fan I should have known better than to expect an easy victory, and sure enough I was instead treated to 90+ minutes of pure disappointment. A 2-1 home loss not only ensured that those damn Wembley memes live on, but also significantly damaged Spurs’ title hopes for this season right out of the gate.
I know what you’re thinking…“Mike, it’s one result. Take it easy.” Normally, I’d be inclined to agree. One bad game doesn’t make a season, as I’m sure Chelsea fans would have told you after watching their side somehow lose to Burnley last weekend. The problem for me is, it’s not just a result like this that is worrisome from a Spurs fan’s perspective. It’s more-so the fact that this match proved we still lack the mental strength to break down teams we should be hammering. To me this suggests that we again won’t be capable of claiming the title this season. We’re like a slightly-better Arsenal at this point; solid overall and capable of occasional brilliance, but with a softer underbelly than a newborn puppy.
We should have absolutely slaughtered the Chelsea XI that Conte threw in front of us on Sunday. No Hazard. No Cahill. No Fabregas. No Costa. No Pedro until he donned a Zorro mask and entered the game late in the second half. Willian was just about the only Chelsea attacker to start that has a reasonable record of success against us, and Alvaro Morata was missing sitters left and right. Their backline included a Danish kid who I’m quite confident is yet to have needed even a single shave in his adult life. So how exactly did we manage to not only lose to that Chelsea team, but fail to score a single goal of our own making?
Our first major issue on Sunday was Pochettino’s approach to the game. All three of the Dier-Wanyama-Dembele Holy Trinity of midfield murder-tacklers started; an absurdly defensive-minded selection choice for a game we should have expected to do most of the attacking in. Wanyama wasn’t even fully-fit, having only gotten a handful of minutes against Newcastle in week 1. Dier and Dembele would have been well capable of playing the pivot positions without Wanyama, which also would have freed up space for another attacker to start. Son Heung-min made a difference up-front once he entered the game, and had he been on the pitch the whole time I imagine he’d have helped us score much earlier than we did. In short, Poch’s decisions on the starting XI and his reluctance to bring on extra attacking help until almost 70 minutes into a game we were struggling to crack open contributed to us losing our first true test of the year.
The second issue that sunk us on Sunday was a comedy of individual errors and sub-par performances. As mentioned above, Wanyama was quite poor. In fact, I saw a lot of fans online blaming him for the second goal because he didn’t get rid of the ball fast enough. But Vic wasn’t the only player to seriously under-perform. Harry Kane, imperious as the lad is, continued his seemingly contractually-obligated dry streak in August, smacking a post and failing to convert a 6-yarder in the first half. Finally, Hugo Lloris drove the proverbial nail into our coffin of incompetence with a combination of terrible distribution and a weak save.
That play in particular is one that encompasses everything wrong with Spurs players’ overall decision making in Sunday’s game. In the build-up to Chelsea’s winning goal, Hugo chose to throw the ball out quickly to Wanyama in the center of the pitch instead of the wide-open Sissoko along the right flank. Not only was Wanyama in a dangerous part of the field to concede possession, he was also one of the only Spurs players with a man on his back at the time; a man he couldn’t have possibly seen until after Hugo cannoned the ball into his feet.
As the play developed and Chelsea’s insufferable Dawson’s Creek look-alike of a left-wingback found his way into a scoring position, Lloris decided to double down on his distribution error by allowing the Spaniard to slip one past him at his near post. Now I love Hugo, and he’s the best keeper we’ve had in decades. But he has an alarming penchant for calamitous decisions, and he is directly responsible for us losing instead of at least getting the draw. For comparison, Courtois made several big stops from similar angles and didn’t make any awful distribution mistakes. That was the difference.
We had a rare opportunity on Sunday to play a huge rival while they were in a very vulnerable state; to not take advantage of this is the very definition of “Spursy” and is demonstrative of why we haven’t won the title in decades. On top of that, to lose the game on our own mistakes rather than the opponent’s aptitude stings even more. Marcos Alonso’s free kick goal was an absolute masterstroke, but he should never had gotten the chance to take it in the first place. We conceded a stupid and unnecessary foul, and got punished for it. Likewise, the second goal we conceded was a joke after having spent an hour pushing for the equalizer. No other top-6 team in the league would be naïve enough to throw a game away in that fashion; rushing to distribute a ball to a marked player and basically inviting Chelsea to counter while all their players were still forward.
The Premier League title is won or lost in most seasons by a handful of points. Spurs gave away three on Sunday; which equates to roughly half of the margin by which they missed out on last year’s title. Another game like this could leave us dangerously off the pace in a year where the competition looks even stronger near the top of the table. To have used our “Mulligan” of sorts so early in the year does not bode well for our future efforts.
So what’s the solution? For starters, the players need to have a look at themselves and determine what they need to do in order to get up for these key games. Individual errors like those that were so frequent on Sunday simply cannot happen on a regular basis if we’re going to compete for top honors. That goes for Pochettino as well; he got his team selection wrong and painted us into a corner we never really got out of. Another thing I’d like to see is some bloody transfer activity when it comes to strengthening our attack. Outside of Son, we had no one on the bench who could’ve changed the game if they came on. When Eriksen, Alli, or Kane have an off-day, we don’t have a useful backup plan. That’s on both Poch and chairman Levy, and if they don’t figure out how to bolster our offensive options I fear we could be in for another season of “close, but not good enough”.
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