Besides my unending contempt, what do these teams have in common? Well for starters, they all belong in what is considered the Premier League’s “top 6”. More importantly, though, is that they’ve also all beaten Spurs this season. In fact, they’re the only three teams to have bested Poch’s men in the league thus far.
Now you may be asking yourself, “So what?” They’re all good teams, there’s no shame in losing to them. Especially when you factor in that 2/3 of those losses came away from home. Big teams are expected to win at home, after all, and Spurs at least managed to keep the score close in each fixture. Where’s the cause for alarm?
Ten years ago, there wouldn’t have been anything notable about this string of results. Hell, no one would’ve batted an eye if these scores occurred even five years ago. The problem is that Spurs have been steadily rising since the turn of the decade. Instead of merely hoping to compete with the top 6 teams, we’ve reached a level where we should expect to beat them. Unfortunately, the team’s mentality doesn’t appear to have caught up just yet.
Poch’s Spurs look very Jekyll & Hyde
This season has already seen some extraordinary results go Tottenham’s way. We smashed another top 6 side, Liverpool, 4-1 a mere month ago. We’ve bested both Real Madrid and Dortmund in the Champions League at home, and also managed a draw away at the Bernabeu. No one would argue that Real Madrid are a step above what the Premier League can offer in terms of competition, including the likes of Chelsea, Man U, and Arsenal. So how is it that we can beat a team of Madrid’s caliber, but struggle to break down sides that are ostensibly closer to our own level?
If you watched the 3 defeats we’ve suffered so far this season, you’ll have noticed a distinct difference between the Spurs that took the game to Madrid and the sides that struggle against their fellow Premier League outfits. The difference is one of confidence, and that lack of confidence seeps into every aspect of our game. Passing, pressing, finishing…all the hallmarks of our best performances were conspicuously absent in the losses we’ve suffered to English sides.
So why does our confidence seemingly erode in the face of more comparable domestic opposition? I’d argue that the primary reason is the heightened level of expectation that surrounds such fixtures. If you look at the Madrid games in the UCL, nobody was giving Spurs a chance. Kane and Co. went into both matches against the La Liga giants knowing full well that everyone with an ounce of footballing knowledge expected them to lose. In doing so, they were able to play with complete freedom; abandoning the fear that comes with pressure and replacing it with daring exuberance. Against their English compatriots, however, it was pressure that ruled the mindset of Spurs’ best players. Kane, Dele, and Eriksen all played rather poorly in each of our three league defeats; looking more like players awed by the occasion than the intrepid young guns that smashed Madrid.
Work still to do for Poch
So how does Poch get those world-beating Spurs to show up against the Premier Leagues’ elite sides? For starters, he can avoid making mistakes himself with the team selection. Whether they were reflected in his starting XI or the substitutes he chose to make later, Poch’s tactical missteps cost us the points in each of our defeats so far. Against Chelsea, he started a needlessly conservative midfield and then made daft substitutions at a point when we were chasing the game. In our match with United, he waited far too long to try to influence the outcome with players off the bench. Finally, against Arsenal he made the almost comically baseless decision to start the helpless Sissoko over an in-form Son, and also waited far too long to bring the South Korean off the bench to help fight for the tie. Poch is usually brilliant when it comes to team selection, but matches against the best teams in England require just as high a degree of concentration from him as they do the players. Unfortunately, he has not been up to it so far against the top teams.
What’s even more frustrating about Poch’s inability to outfox Conte, Mourinho, or Wenger thus far is that none of his managerial opponents came into those matches in the finest of form. Chelsea were forced to field an extremely weak side against us that was bereft of key men like Hazard, Fabregas, and Cahill. United came into the game against us on the backs of repeated draws and disappointing performances. While Arsenal were probably in the best shape ahead of our fixture, they’re also objectively the weakest side of the three big boys we’ve lost to. We shouldn’t have struggled to the degree we did against any of those teams, let alone all three.
Players still missing that “winning” mentality
I am extremely hesitant to criticize any of our players given the joys they’ve provided me over the last few seasons. Guys like Kane and Dele are so young and exciting when you look at their development potential, it’s almost crazy to say a negative word about them. Yet despite their promise and evident skill, a youthful immaturity still shines through on some occasions. Kane has failed to score against any top 6 side bar Liverpool in the four matches we’ve had with such teams this season. For a man who’s capable of lighting up the likes of Dortmund and Madrid, that’s simply not acceptable. Eriksen, who came off an absolute cracker of a performance in World Cup Qualifying this past week, was anonymous against Arsenal at the weekend, as was Dele.
The above players’ failings clearly aren’t down to a lack of ability. But for some reason, they are finding it very difficult to impose that ability on other top teams this season. I’ve said over and over again that when our main attacking trio fail to get going, we struggle. Even though we have Son to try to compensate for Kane or Dele’s off-days, Poch’s reluctance to start him on a regular basis deprives us of that extra attacking thrust. Thus it all falls on the same players to produce every week, and if they don’t play well we suffer. Against Arsenal this past weekend, the whole team wasn’t necessarily poor. Sanchez and Dembele played quite well, actually. The problem was that our attack couldn’t get anything going, and a team like Arsenal will eventually punish you when you spend most of the match defending.
Stern tests ahead
Man City are the next top 6 team on Spurs’ radar, with a mid-December fixture looming large. City are setting the pace in the league this season and look as unstoppable as they ever have during Poch’s tenure. It will take nothing short of an incredible effort to beat them, and if the same pedestrian Spurs team shows up to play Pep’s men it’ll be nothing short of a massacre.
Beyond the 2017 calendar year, Tottenham can look forward to a February 2018 fortnight in which they’ll face United (H), Liverpool (A) and Arsenal (H). Depending on where Spurs are in the table at that point in the year, that run of fixtures could decide their fate in the league as either title chasers or Champions League hopefuls. If Poch doesn’t figure out how to beat the top 6 by then, it’ll be a season of domestic disappointment for Spurs fans who had hoped to push on even further from the title challenges of our last two campaigns.