One day, someone will perform a study on the power of negative association in sport. Perhaps it has already been done but, alas, we’re yet to a hear a reasonable explanation for why certain venues have such an inhibiting effect on certain teams.
Why, for instance, have Tottenham often melted to a dysfunctional mess at Anfield? Ignoring Liverpool’s periodic superiority during the Premier League years, Spurs have frequently wheezed in the thin Mersey air and, even during steady runs of form, have regularly failed to put their best foot forward. In the six years since their last win in this fixture, they’ve achieved plenty of creditable results and, admittedly, have done so in spite of a considerable financial disadvantage. Nevertheless, not all of the imperfections, mistakes, and mental errors can be attributed to Luis Suarez, a higher wage spend, and Tim Sherwood. This is a haunted ground. A place where past underachievement continues to inform the present and which remains oddly resistant to Mauricio Pochettino’s coaching charm.
It may sound like typical football vaguery but, just as in previous years, 2017 lent the substance: inside twenty minutes this evening, Tottenham were 2-0 down and essentially beaten. The Toby Alderweireld/Eric Dier axis, flawed but generally reliable, had creaked to the point of fracture. Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama, Pochettino’s stable midfield platform, were unusually charitable with the ball and bafflingly reckless without it. In fact, it seemed to be a performance shaped by the manager’s own critical misjudgement. Liverpool have laboured against defences which have remained compact and deep this year and yet Pochettino, in a move which would have delighted his opposite number, stationed his back-line high up the pitch and volunteered the space Jurgen Klopp has been searching for all month.
It was both highly uncharacteristic and yet extremely familiar. Spurs may be enjoying a renaissance and they may also warrant much of the praise they attract, but they retain this ability to shoot themselves in the foot. Losing is an inevitable part of the game, but being spectacularly awful at critical moments is not. Instead, it represents a failure to reach even a basic level of competitiveness and was indicative of team playing without the belief that they belonged in such a high profile fixture.
But there’s a complication and it lies in that improvement. Spurs are a better side than at any other point in the Premier League era and because that rise has been quick and eye-catching, it seems churlish to criticise them – ungrateful, even. This is the age, after all, of fan melodrama and a time when supporter reactions are alarmingly binary. To place undue focus on an isolated defeat must sound like a disproportionate response, as it ignores the wider context of a successful campaign. Three losses by February is not really enough to complain about in Tottenham world.
However, this is the price paid for growth: once a new level has been established, a harsher judgement criteria emerges. Celebrating contextual triumphs becomes increasingly hollow and caveating defeats with the recognition that life used to be worse is equally so; losing can’t be okay just because it used to happen more often. Though such an attitude may sound cheerful, it’s really an inversion of any traditionally ambitious thinking. The more a team wins, the less tolerable defeat should become. Ultimately, the greater the improvement that takes place, the less room there should be for excuses. Yet, whenever this team flounders against high-profile opposition, the general response is nearly always to point to a financial disadvantage, a restriction enforced by the small stadium, or even injuries to certain players. While being valid points, they serve only to obfuscate a more simple truth: tonight, Pochettino fielded eleven players capable of properly contesting a game with Liverpool. They didn’t do that. They didn’t come close. At times, they were feeble.
Tottenham’s growth has been sustained for long enough for it to be considered real. They remain in a curious place, though, with the talent and construction of an elite side but the mentality of a team just happy to be in contention. The players and manager may make all the right noises and appropriate faces, but that represents superficial resilience only. Regrettably, the inconsistencies in their texture are still plainly evident: in the two losing position lost at Stamford Bridge in May and January, in the humiliating capitulation at St James’ Park, and at Anfield earlier today.
Any reasonable assessment would conclude that a new day is dawning at White Hart Lane and that the club’s future is healthy indeed. But, no matter how tempting it is to ignore, it’s still important to acknowledge the statistic below:
*Ahem* Since May 2015, Tottenham have only won one away game against a current top-eight Premier League side in all competitions.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) February 9, 2017
Pochettino isn’t performing a mind-trick, because the improvements he’s overseen are incontestably real. However, the galling truth remains that, when it really matters, his team still lose. There may be mitigation, but the Premier League table doesn’t do asterisks and, until the fibres in their DNA toughen, Tottenham will continue to give the same performances at the same grounds, and to wear that same look of horror while they do.
It all feels so familiar because, unfortunately, not quite enough has changed yet.
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