It was only a month ago that Tottenham put in what was perhaps their best ever performance under Mauricio Pochettino, as they destroyed Manchester City’s 100% start to the season.
The 1-0 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday was arguably their worst. Things really do change quickly in football.
That defeat represented their sixth consecutive game without a victory, and while that’s not the worst spell of Pochettino’s career (he once went 12 barren matches with Espanyol), it’s Tottenham’s longest winless run since 2011. If they play like they did against Leverkusen, it’ll be even worse against Arsenal this weekend, indignity piled upon the “embarrassment” that Pochettino admitted he felt on Wednesday.
Most of the questions after that game were about Wembley, and what sort of impact playing there had on the Spurs side. But they were quickly dismissed by Pochettino and the players, which is to be expected: if there’s one thing worse than playing badly and losing, it’s playing badly and losing then making thin excuses afterwards. In any case, that wouldn’t explain limp performances against Leicester, Bournemouth and West Brom in the Premier League recently.
There has been talk about whether Tottenham’s style of play has become too predictable, and it was certainly notable that Leverkusen managed to cause panic by administering some of Pochettino’s own medicine, a rapid, relentless high-press causing panic as Spurs tried to build from the back.
However, their current problem does seem to be a little more basic than that.
Tottenham are missing Harry Kane, Erik Lamela and Toby Alderweireld, while Mousa Dembele limped off on Wednesday and hasn’t looked himself all season. Those four players were arguably their most influential last season, so with the heart ripped out of the team it’s hardly a surprise that they’re not as fluent as they could be.
“We cannot depend on one, two or three players,” said Hugo Lloris on Wednesday. “We need to think as a team. In football there are ups and downs. It is difficult because this game was very important and I did not feel we were aware of that…We failed and it was difficult to keep a balance on the pitch. At the moment we need to learn quickly because there is a big big game on Sunday.”
A big game indeed, but while Lloris obviously was not going to offer more excuses, few would blame Spurs for pointing to these absences as a reason for their poor form. Kane is the obvious one, but he was missing for the City game and has started the season slowly anyway.
Alderweireld offers solidity in defence and an underrated range of distribution moving forwards (something that’s crucial in Pochettino’s style of play), while Lamela gives their attack urgency and invention, two things that were desperately lacking on Wednesday, as they have been in the last few weeks.
Being without your first-choice players out is one thing, but the blow would be softened if their replacements were a little closer in quality. As it is, there’s a significant drop-off when the top players are out, exposing a troublingly thin squad.
With Alderweireld absent, Eric Dier is his makeshift replacement, in a position with which he’s familiar but hasn’t played for some time. The alternatives are Cameron Carter-Vickers (promising but not ready) and Kevin Wimmer, who did well last season but has fallen out of favour.
Moussa Sissoko is playing in place of Lamela, but he has thus far showed why he underwhelmed for a relegated team last season, and his performance against Leverkusen was painful. The only positive you could offer was that he at least tried to be proactive, but in the end that merely placed him in positions to display ineptitude more frequently.
And then there’s Vincent Janssen. These are early days and it’s harsh to judge too early, but he looks too slow to be an effective Premier League striker: not in body (in a recent game he was clocked as Tottenham’s second-fastest player, after Kyle Walker) but in mind. On a few occasions during his time in the team, he has been presented with rebounds that he simply hasn’t reacted to quickly enough to score, and that’s been costly. It’s not a surprise that, in Kane’s absence, Pochettino has sometimes started Son-heung Min up front instead.
The cavalry might be returning soon, but more absences will come as the season goes on.
They are better than they’re showing at the moment, but Tottenham’s squad worryingly thin.
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