This weekend’s FA Cup semi-finals delivered on the entertainment front, with each match featuring a handful of goals. On Saturday, Spurs fell to Manchester United 2-1, while Sunday saw Chelsea ease past Southampton by a 2-0 score line. Both teams deserve their place in the final, and a United v Chelsea clash should ensure a lively end to this year’s tournament.
That’s all well and good, but as a Spurs fan I’d be remiss not to conduct a postmortem on yet another crippling defeat in the hunt for silverware. Saturday’s game started incredibly well for Pochettino and Co., but soon faded into the all-too-familiar scenario of a blown lead and eventual heartbreaking loss.
Where did it all go wrong? What must the team do to improve? How long will Poch stick around? All valid questions in the wake of Spurs’ latest nearly-men moment.
Player selection still an issue for Pochettino
Though Spurs managed an early goal through the brilliance of, you guessed it, Christian Eriksen, their level of play dropped off quickly afterwards. Part of the reason for this is that Poch continues to select a clearly tired Kane in the starting striker role instead of using his considerable midfield depth instead. Kane hasn’t been at his usual best since the ankle injury he suffered just over a month ago, and his lack of fitness affects the whole squad in Poch’s tactical set-up.
High press teams are only as good as their weakest player. It’s a fact that any coach employing the strategy should know. Even with my lowly travel soccer coaching experience, it’s a point I know to hammer home if I want my team to adopt the pressing style. So why Poch continues to play Kane, who barely seems able to sprint at times, is beyond me. The purpose of the high press is completely lost when your striker fails to put any true pressure on the opposing back line, and Kane was guilty of this failure on Saturday.
I don’t want this to come off as being critical of Kane; it’s not meant to be. He’s evidently not 100% fit, and his manager should be considering that in his team selection. The fact that Poch is consistently playing a crocked Kane belies a lack of faith in his other players, which is frankly ridiculous to me. He could easily have started the energetic Son up top and used Lamela, arguably Spurs’ most manic presser, in midfield. With Kane on the bench, Poch would also have had a trump card to turn to for 20-odd decent minutes if Spurs were chasing a goal late in the game. Instead, we essentially played 10 v 11 for large portions of the match, and United found it easy to play through the press in midfield.
On top of the Kane issue, there was the bizarre decision to start Vorm instead of Lloris in goal. I like Vorm; he’s a perfectly suitable back-up to Hugo and has played relatively well all season. But in a cup semi-final, you have to go with your best keeper. I can’t fault Vorm for the first goal, but the second was hit right at him and I’m positive Hugo would’ve made a better attempt at saving it.
Squad inexperience exposed
It’s almost laughable to suggest that Spurs’ first team isn’t a pretty experienced group by now. The vast majority of them have been getting regular minutes together for the last 3 seasons and they’ve had ample time to come to an understanding with one another. Yet when it comes to the big occasions such as Saturday’s match, this team looks as though they’ve never played with one another. The result is embarrassing as they continually find ways to lose the lead and surrender games they were firmly in control of.
It happened against Juve in the Champions League, too. We started well, got ahead, and had our destiny in our own hands. Then, we took our foot of the gas and made two huge mental errors that gave the Italians the goals they needed to advance. There’s no shame in losing to teams like Juve or United under normal circumstances, but it stings that we were the architects of our own downfall in both instances.
Against Juve, our fullbacks kept their attackers onside for both goals when they should’ve been holding Vertonghen’s line. In the United match, the normally imperious Moussa Dembele made a dumb decision on the ball right outside our box that allowed Pogba to take it and whip a cross in for Sanchez’s goal. United’s second goal was pure panic at the back as we failed to clear our lines in a scenario that shouldn’t have been dangerous at all.
When it comes down to the major occasions, normally reliable players are making serious tactical errors. That’s not going to win us a trophy, and Poch doesn’t seem to know how to prepare the team to avoid these costly breakdowns in judgement.
A project in perpetuity?
Much has been made of the progress Spurs have demonstrated in the last few seasons. I’ve touted it myself on Soccity before. There’s no question that this team is significantly better than it was a decade ago. The owners, ENIC, and chairman Daniel Levy are huge contributing factors to that success. Now that we’ve reached the cusp of true greatness, though, are they also holding us back?
The papers this week will be rife with reports of unrest at Spurs. Unhappy players, a frustrated manager, a nervous board, etc. While many of these reports will be exaggerated, or outright fabrications, some will have a modicum of truth to them. It’s no secret that over the past few seasons, Poch has been stalled in the transfer market by Levy’s insistence on meddling in squad affairs. We take too long to negotiate with players, we haggle over an extra million or two in fees, and in general are noted as a nightmare team to enter transfer discussions with. While Levy’s bullish nature in negotiations is often praised by fans, it’s not the best way to convince top talent to come to your club.
Our wage structure is a huge sticking point that prevents top talent from even considering a move to Spurs. The fact that Levy, despite earning absurd amounts of money himself, refuses to budge on player salaries is the reason Alderweireld will likely leave this summer, which will in turn unsettle other players. It’s an unnecessary, destabilizing fixture in our club’s ethos and continues to hold us back from becoming as good as City or United.
Do I think we need to spend $100M in every window? Of course not. But right now, we either don’t spend, or spend poorly. We’re not making the kind of moves that push a team over the next hump in their development. Instead, we’re making “smart” investments in players we can later sell for profit. It’s a money-over-trophies philosophy, and if it continues then Poch and most of our key players are likely to look at winning titles elsewhere.
At a certain point, the project has to start producing results. After 3 seasons that have yielded no silverware (despite evident on-field improvement), how much longer do we have to wait for all this effort to pay off? Some of our players, particularly Kane, may be loyal over the next few seasons. But how many of the others will stick around indefinitely as they watch their peers earn twice as much money while lifting a trophy almost every year?