Opinion: Failure at Fulham – The Spurs Carabao Cup exit debrief

As a younger man, I always had a frustrating relationship with New Year’s Eve. The preparation would build up many weeks in advance and culminate in a crescendo of excitement until the day arrived.

Yet almost without fail, the actual night itself would be a letdown. The bars would be packed to the point of overcrowding; the drinks would be ridiculously priced and of course, you were never the right temperature.

Outside would be freezing, yet inside, wrapped in a winter coat, you would be sweating profusely and engaged in the balancing act of holding your coat and drink, whilst trying to speak over blaring music.

Invariably, it would end with me sitting on either the underground or a night bus, feeling tired and irritable and cursing myself for getting my hopes up once again.

Last night I had flashbacks to these distant memories.

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 29: Rodrigo Muniz of Fulham is tackled by Davinson Sanchez of Tottenham Hotspur during the Carabao Cup Second Round match between Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur at Craven Cottage on August 29, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Since the exciting wins against Manchester United and Bournemouth, I have hardly been able to control my excitement until my next ‘hit’ of ‘Angeball’. How many ‘more sleeps’ until the next game?

Having been deprived for so long of good football, I needed to consume more and more. Thus, by midday on Tuesday, having navigated the bank holiday unscathed, I could not wait, and, judging by Twitter, many Spurs fans felt the same way.

In previous years, an early round fixture in the League Cup felt like a match that could just slip by, ‘Oh did we play last night?’. But not today.

With no European football this year, we could focus on domestic silverware and go all out to try and secure a cup. Who knows, even win a trophy before our dear departed goalscoring hero.

Then the team sheet was announced.

Nine changes. Nine changes? Nine bloody changes! And one of the two players to retain their spot was someone who was hauled off after less than an hour in the previous game.

I doubt any Spurs fan was expecting the prime roster, but this was not in the script. In fact, the message it sent out was quite clear. ‘We are not taking this competition seriously’. If we go through, we go through – but we are not that bothered.

Despite my initial reaction of irritation and disbelief, it needs to be acknowledged that the lineup did not dampen the spirits of those fans who had made the trek to The Cottage. Who, throughout the night, eclipsed the home support with their singing and support for the team.

Unfortunately, on the pitch, the side failed to match the energy and quality displayed in the stands. It is fair to say that I have been gushing about Ange and the Tottenham Hotspur Renaissance, but this was like a horrible, unpleasant look in the rear-view mirror.

There is no point in sugarcoating it, the performance was insipid, uninspired and toothless. Had Kenny Tete’s boot not been ripped and a spare not conveniently located, I doubt we would have scored.

And, had we won on penalties, then it would have been a miscarriage of justice.

Same old problems we already knew at Tottenham

I was going to start this next section by posing the question: So, what did we learn? But, quite frankly, nothing that I witnessed last night taught me anything I didn’t already know. In fact, if anything it cemented a lot of my preconceived ideas.

Firstly, there is a significant drop-off from the starting eleven to the ‘second string’. I know football is now a squad game, but there is a reality about that statement.

Of the players playing last night, I would argue that the only position that could be rotated with little change in quality is right back. This is not to say that the other players are not good enough.

In the game against Bournemouth, Hojbjerg and Perisic played valuable roles in seeing through the result. But the difference there was – they are surrounded by a better calibre of player. Hojbjerg in central midfield is far better alongside the likes of Maddison and Bissouma.

The problem is – we have all seen Hojbjerg and Skipp play in unison in the midfield and they do not possess the requisite skillset or creativity to play the way Ange expects to play.

Similarly, Lo Celso, alongside the likes of Bentancur and Bissouma is able to be far more impactful. Yesterday, he struggled to get involved, looked slow on the ball and looked, at times, disinterested.

Throwing on subs late to try and steal the win is a ‘tactic’ we have seen too much of in recent years and so it was employed again yesterday. How often has the camera panned to Harry Kane look disconsolate standing by the fourth official with fourteen minutes to go as we whimpered out of another cup competition?

Yet again, by the time the ‘cavalry’ was summoned, the pattern of the game was set and they did not have the time to impact the game in Tottenham’s favour.

The question therefore does have to be asked: Why was this starting eleven selected? If Ange believed that that selection could conceivably succeed, then that indicates a slight naivety, which I doubt is correct.

Could it be a more cynical reason? A stark message to Daniel Levy that beyond the main twelve or thirteen players we certainly do not have the strength in depth for a successful Premier League campaign.

There is a third, possibly more cynical option – that now, without League Cup football, game time for a number of players will now be non-existent, except if there is an injury crisis. This forces the hand of those players and agents who may have been content to play a ‘reduced role’.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of last night is that, in a way, it reduces the momentum the team were building. Any manager will tell you that winning breeds confidence and we had the possibility of going into the first international break on ten points and into the next round.

Do not get me wrong, the overall feeling of joyful abandon has not entirely dissipated. I do enjoy dabbling in hyperbole – but not to that extent – however, there is a sense that we may ‘have our Tottenham back’, but the lingering remnants of previous regimes still lurk ominously close to the surface.

I cannot help but feel that the next few days, before the window closes, are crucial to our long-term success this season. Undoubtedly, the squad needs to be reduced in size, but we are also in need of a player to lead the line, some-one to provide cover on the wing and another central defender to add depth to Romero and Van de Ven.

If not, this season could end up being a bit like one of my New Year’s Eves, full of promise – but ultimately not what everyone was hoping for.

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