Put the continuity argument to bed now, because it doesn’t carry weight anymore. Tottenham’s defeat to Liverpool at Wembley looked respectable from the outside, but its substance provided compelling evidence that Jurgen Klopp’s team have been able to accelerate away within just a single summer. There’s a financial advantage at Anfield, a pronounced one, but the difference should not already be as great as it obviously is.
Spurs were bad at Wembley, inept at times, and while individual mistakes must always be viewed in isolation, this afternoon they felt like the manifestation of a deeper problem. This is a tired team, physically and mentally. Moreover, this is a side who have already played every trick available to them and, without any investment, find themselves reliant on the same group of players doing the same things in order to win games.
Even under the best possible circumstances, that’s a situation with a half-life. And these are not the best possible circumstances.
Increasingly, Pochettino is having to think his way around problems. Lucas Moura has been given a central attacking role as a means of lessening the burden on the struggling Harry Kane, the out-of-form Eric Dier is being used to plug a midfield which can no longer rely on Moussa Dembele each week or which has the support of a fully-fit Victor Wanyama.
There is no silver bullet solution for any of those issues, but it looks increasingly as if Pochettino hasn’t been given the proper means to even try to address them. Tottenham are becoming a team built on compromise: they take attributes from one area of the field, repurpose them for use elsewhere, and then dilute their original value. It’s not Pochettino’s fault, because it’s a situation instructed by shortages, but it’s a faintly ridiculous scenario for a team hoping to finishing in the top-four while competing in the Champions League.
This is how it’s going to be, because this is a situation which Tottenham themselves have invited. There is no replacement for Dele Alli, no standby for Kane and no contingency for any injury to Christian Eriksen. If any of those players are unavailable or ineffective for any length of time, the squad around them isn’t capable of coping in the interim.
The frustration comes from knowing just how easily this could have been prevented. Those are three special players without like-for-like replacements anywhere in the game, but by introducing a small nucleus of similarly-attributed talent underneath them, Pochettino could have been given greater range with which to manage, the players themselves would have been afforded protection from the season’s physical strain, and the squad would have had the benefit of further competition.
It’s really hard to justify. Tottenham have a manager who has done wonderful things, who has taken them well beyond their weight class, and yet there’s still this reticence in supporting him – and actually, it’s a hesitation which not only threatens (or will probably prevent) their further development this season, but by which all reasonable logic endangers their short-to-medium term future.
There’s one thing to remember: if a manager feels he’s incapable of showing his best work with a team, for whatever reason, he will eventually start to consider what effect that has on his reputation in the game. Those who make decisions at Tottenham might also want to consider what their club might look like if Pochettino wasn’t there – where they might be now if he hadn’t taken over from Tim Sherwood and, more importantly, what sequence of events might occur if he were to leave at the end of this season.
It’s a doomsday prophecy and it sounds melodramatic, but is it really so far-fetched? One imagines that Pochettino didn’t enjoy being made to look second-rate by Jurgen Klopp on Saturday and, while he retains a certain level of responsibility for the performance, there’s this creeping sense that this is – in a sporting sense – an abusive relationship and that his employers aren’t pulling their weight.
Even putting the recruitment to one side, they also haven’t delivered the stadium on time, they’ve forced the side to play (what will seemingly end up being) another entire season away from home and – cumulatively – making the job of managing the team as difficult as it could possibly be within its context. Even the relationship with the supporters has been damaged, creating an atmosphere of undue negativity and ratcheting up the pressure on the players.
This is a club who are already at a disadvantage, who have to survive and advance through the gathering of marginal gains and the exploitation of intangibles. In effect, they’re succeeding only in nullifying value of their own USP.
It cannot be over-stressed: this is not a path that Tottenham want to get any further down. Their progress has been impressive over the last few years, but their elevated status within in English football is extremely fragile.
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