I had the good fortune of being otherwise disposed during much of Spurs’ stuttering Saturday contest with boring old West Brom. Friends returning to the area for the Thanksgiving holiday had organized an early morning kick around, affording me a nice excuse to not sit through 90 minutes of maddening frustration. When I finally brought myself to tune-in for the final 15 minutes of the match, I watched Spurs huff and puff and blow nothing down as they slumped to a 1-1 draw against their vastly inferior opponents.
This was a return to the Tottenham of old—the side that could blitz a big team 4-1 and then lose to a minnow the following week—and it couldn’t come at a worse time. My last article spoke of how Spurs were struggling to beat their fellow top 6 contenders; well I’m now duty-bound to concede that we’re pretty poor against the smaller teams, too. We’ve drawn 3 matches this season, all at home, to Burnley, Swansea, and now West Brom. Compare us to the rest of the top 4 and you’ll find that not only have they all drawn fewer matches than us, but they are also playing better teams when they do wind up sharing the spoils (i.e., Chelsea’s draw with Liverpool).
What’s it all mean? For starters, the league is already out of reach. We’d need a time machine to catch City at this point given they’re already 13 points clear of us. We’re also looking at a real fight for 4th place and a Champions League position unless we sort out our nonsensical home form. Arsenal aren’t exactly lying down and dying for us this season, and both Chelsea and United look solid. We’re already out of the league cup, though we still have a shot at the FA Cup. So, what can Pochettino and his team realistically achieve this season? Or rather, what should they try to achieve?
Get aggressive in the league to secure a vital 4th place finish
Spurs’ Champions League performances this season have been the talk of the tournament so far. It was no small feat to top a group containing experienced European campaigners Real Madrid and Dortmund, an accomplishment sealed by last week’s 2-1 win in Germany. Their league form seems to be suffering as a result, however, which is a pretty serious problem for Poch. A deep run in the UCL this term will mean little to fans (and his players) if they fail to qualify for next season’s edition.
With that in mind, Pochettino needs to find a way to start winning more league games, especially at home. I understand Wembley isn’t White Hart Lane, but it’s an embarrassment for us to not beat West Brom there when we played Madrid off that pitch barely a month ago. Part of the issue, in my opinion, is that we’re setting up in needlessly defensive fashion against teams that we know are going to park the bus against us anyway. Why field 3 center backs against a team that’s going to play a lone striker and sit 10 men behind the ball all game? Wouldn’t it have been better to play Son for an extra attacking thrust?
Poch has better depth this season than he’s had at any point in his tenure at Spurs, but he’s largely mismanaged it thus far. That has to change. Failure to qualify for next season’s UCL will kill the momentum we’re starting to build in this year’s competition and potentially lead to summer departures of high-profile players. He’s got to be bolder with his team selection to ensure we’re squeezing 3 points out of mid-table fodder consistently. That means trusting his attacking players and abandoning the over-cautious 3-man center back style that has served us well against the bigger sides. West Brom aren’t Real; we won’t be defending the whole game. That extra attacker could easily make the difference between a draw and a win.
Go deep in Europe to inspire self-belief
Fans watch the game to see the big occasions, and Spurs have delivered on the most demanding of stages several times already in the UCL. While it’s important to please the fan base with continental success, it’s even more pivotal for a team like Spurs to prove to themselves that they belong among Europe’s elite.
Every season’s transfer window is dominated by talk of Champions League football. The best players want it, and they go to teams that can deliver it. But it isn’t all about just going to the dance. The best players want to win the Champions League, and they’ll go to the side that gives them the best chance. Spurs’ UCL history as a club is in its infancy; these are the pivotal years in determining whether they’ll be a competition regular or an occasional participant. If they prove to themselves that they have a legitimate chance at winning it all, Pochettino’s job of keeping his top players becomes infinitely easier.
To work towards the goal of building that belief this season, it’s an absolute must for Spurs to make a solid run in the knockout round. Their fantastic group stage performance, along with UEFA’s seeding guidelines for the round of 16, means they will avoid several heavyweights in the first knockout round. At the time of writing, Barcelona, Man City, Chelsea, United, Liverpool, and Real are all sides Spurs cannot draw for the round of 16, and some of their potential opponents based on current standings include:
- Porto/Sporting (POR)
- Leipzig/Bayern (GER)
- Spartak/CKSA (RUS)
- Sevilla/Atleti (ESP)
- Juventus/Roma/Napoli (ITA)
- Basel (SWI)
- Shaktar (UKR)
Only a few of the above teams scare me (Bayern, Juve, Roma, Napoli), so navigating the round of 16 should be very doable. If we manage that, it’s anybody’s guess how much further we can go; but Poch should go all-in to get us as far as we can. The more success our young squad achieves this season, the hungrier they’ll be to get back in the mix next year.
Play the kids in the FA Cup until we reach the latter stages
I’ll concede that as an American following the game from across an ocean, I don’t possess the same romantic attachment to the FA Cup that many of my fellow Spurs fans based in England have. That said, my stance on this tourney doesn’t come from a place of malice or disrespect. It’s on practical grounds that I believe this competition should take the lowest priority for Poch, especially in a year where a deep UCL run is very possible and league success is paramount.
The FA Cup sees Premier League sides play largely inferior opposition up until the latter rounds of the competition. In fact, Premier League teams don’t even enter the competition until the third round (we’re currently at round 2), and depending on their draw may not meet a fellow top-flight team until even later in the tournament. Given the nature of this draw structure, it’s the ideal competition to give your lesser-used players some minutes and a chance to prove themselves. A lot of Premier League teams and managers take this approach while still doing well in the competition, with a notable example being Arsene Wenger at Arsenal (winners in 2014 & 2015).
If Poch wants to avoid burnout and keep his players fit for their major Premier League and UCL matches, the FA Cup is the obvious environment in which to rotate his team with a reduced risk of losing games. As much as I want a trophy for Spurs and the FA Cup is likely the simplest option to achieve that goal, it simply doesn’t compare to the value of qualifying for or winning the Champions League. If we manage to get far in the competition and winning is a possibility, then by all means play a strong team and go for it. But until then, spare the first XI some extra fixtures to keep them fresh for more difficult and important games.