Do I mean our run of woeful form, or our season? Well, our season is already as good as over, at least as far as actually winning anything goes, so maybe stretching it to Christmas is generous. As for our form, hmmmn….let’s come back to that later.
A bit melodramatic? Well, let’s look at the facts. Prior to Tuesday’s game with Leicester, we apparently had exactly the same number of points as we had at the same juncture last season, which, considering the excellent run we then embarked on that secured our highest ever finish in the Premiership, ostensibly provided some grounds for optimism. However, at that time we were only 7 points behind Chelsea and, despite our consistency and beating them at the Lane, we barely dented that lead. After the weekend’s results, Man. City were already 13 points ahead of us. After Wednesday night’s result, helped in no small part by the emergence of what might well be dubbed, come the end of the season, ‘Guardiola-time’, that had stretched to 16. We are 8 points behind Man. Utd, 5 behind Chelsea, 4 behind Arsenal and 2 behind Liverpool.
I won’t bother highlighting the fact that Burnley are now 1 point above us, too, as they are punching above their weight and will slip eventually and I am, therefore, reasonably confident we can overhaul them. As for the others, though…. Who, given our pitiful away record against those top five over the last few seasons, would back us to secure any points from the City, Liverpool or Chelsea away games? Contrast our away performances in Madrid and Dortmund with our insipid displays at Man. Utd and Arsenal and you get your answer. It’s not that the games weren’t close; more that we showed no real sign of getting back in the game after falling behind. Worse, we didn’t seem to have the belief that we could, or any sense of a leader out there who could instil such belief. An extremely worrying trait in a team who ended last season on such a good run and who recently took 4 points off Real.
From our games against five of the six teams now above us in the league (frighteningly, we still have to play the runaway leaders twice), we’ve only gained 4 points, and those from the two immediately above us. The Liverpool game apart, we have struggled terribly at Wembley in the league this year, scraping two 1-0 wins and being held to 0-0 and 1-1 draws against four teams in the bottom six. Unless we see a drastic and immediate improvement, our prospects of a top-four finish are already beginning to look bleak.
So what has gone wrong? Well, I always worry when pundits start praising us and calling us North London’s top team and Pochettino starts talking us up as genuine contenders. Season after season, our players react to this by under-performing in crucial games. Pochettino is beginning to sound irritatingly like a politician, talking in an abstract way about what’s gone wrong without taking responsibility or articulating precisely what he’s going to do about it. I don’t want to hear him repeat ‘We have to learn’ or ‘We started very sluggishly’ or ‘We need to be more clinical.’ Every Spurs fan knows what we ‘need’. I want to see evidence that we have learned and that we’re not going to keep repeating the same old mistakes. And that he, and the players, take responsibility for it – unlike politicians.
A lack of leadership is a real problem, as it has been, to be honest, since the Ledley King days. Harry Kane is a great example to others, always working his socks off, and Lloris is an excellent keeper, but neither a centre-forward nor a goalkeeper should be a captain in my view; call me old-fashioned if you like, but I feel a captain should be a centre-back or a holding midfielder. Sadly, none of the players we have in those positions currently appear to be captain material. And, though we don’t fold, as in days of old, when going behind, we do often seem to be a bit rudderless in our response. We need a ‘roll-your-sleeves-up’ ‘arse-kicking’ inspirational leader out there.
Apart from lacking a proper captain, the other main thing we lack – and here I agree wholeheartedly with Jermaine Jenas’s assessment on last weekend’s Match of the Day – is a flair player. Alli has potential in that area but, the Liverpool and Real Madrid games at Wembley apart, that is largely unrealised potential. Most of his form this season has been characterised by a failure to retain possession, often, as in the West. Brom. game, with dire consequences. Often he has – witness his two assists against Dortmund, rather stumbled luckily through challenges (which is, incidentally, what Sissoko seems to do as a matter of choice), rather than beat opponent sthrough sheer trickery. Think what a difference a Hazard or Willian could make to us. Or a Zaha, even. The ability to drop a shoulder, feint, go past someone. It seems strange to be bemoaning a lack of flair when you have players such as Kane, Alli, Eriksen and Son playing but how many times have we had a player come off the bench and change a game? Usually, our substitutions just result in more of the same; plenty of effort but no real guile.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, so will take this opportunity to praise the signings of Sanchez and Aurier. Sanchez has been excellent all season and Aurier has mostly looked good, particularly in Europe. And I quite like what I saw of that new forward, Lamela, the other night. But I genuinely cannot see us making the top three now, given the levels of consistency the teams occupying those positions are capable of showing, and continuing. I fear that we have got carried away with topping our Champions’ League ‘group of death’ and that, ultimately, while congratulating ourselves on avoiding Barcelona, Bayern and PSG, we will be undone in that competition by a team with a lesser pedigree than those three or Real; reaching the last eight would still be a sign of progress. As for the FA Cup, forget it – Pochettino treats this as an opportunity for bizarre team tweaks and it’s hard to see beyond one of the usual suspects picking it up to add to their over-flowing trophy cabinets again.
My hope, is that, now we know the title is already way out of reach, we relax, stop believing our own publicity and start playing again. In both of the last two seasons we have thrown our title hopes away with sluggish starts, then started playing, so we already have that mentality. If we do, then we still have a chance of overtaking the two flakiest teams above us. Liverpool can be brilliant going forward but vulnerable at the back. Arsenal can, shamefully, play as if their lives depended on it against us but cannot be relied upon to show that level of fight remotely consistently. As I said earlier, I fear that the other three have flown, although Chelsea aren’t what they were last year and Man. Utd may yet stall, given that not all their football has been as scintillating a their winning scores have suggested, though I doubt Mourinho will let that happen. Whatever, we need to get our act together very quickly, otherwise, European football nights in our spanking new stadium next season will be on Thursdays and we’ll be welcoming some team that finished second in the league of a country that wasn’t even a country not so long ago. And how long will we hold onto certain players who have tasted the delights of the Champions’ League then, I wonder.
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