Opinion: Defeat in the first game; just how big an issue could it be for Spurs

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Dom Le Roy

For any Spurs fan watching Tottenham v Everton, it would not have been an enjoyable experience. Tottenham suffered a 0-1 defeat that could legitimately be argued to be a fortunate result, for such a narrow deficit come the final whistle.  Usually, a defeat to an Everton side would raise an eyebrow for their appalling record against Big Six teams, but for Tottenham on Sunday, the eyebrows were raised for the abject nature of the performance. Post-match, Jose Mourinho called the performance lazy, suggesting the players were not in the right frame of mind (Guardian). Both assertions were clearly correct. What is the issue though, and how can it be remedied?

Let’s begin with that laziness; that poor frame of mind. Tottenham were lazy. Their pressing was virtually non-existent. They arrived second to challenges, and consequently they lost 64.7% of their aerial duels (Sky Sports). Watching it, it seemed as though Everton won every second ball, and that all of their players were faster runners than ours. Much has been made of the intensity of the Premier League and its challenging adjustment period for players from abroad. That intensity simply wasn’t on display from Tottenham however, and James and Allan could be forgiven for wondering whether they were actually still playing in Spain or Italy, respectively. Carlo Ancelotti suggested class players do not need bedding-in time. They can just pick up and go, but for those new players, they can barely have hoped to have such an easy time of it. Everton came with a desire to win, and Spurs seemed to come with a desire to be somewhere else, anywhere else, other than playing a game of football on a Sunday afternoon. Bottom line, Tottenham just weren’t up for it.

Mourinho highlighted issues with the pandemic and its impact on pre-season, and this may well have had an impact. Yet other teams will have been impacted by it as well. Everton have had the same amount of time to prepare as Tottenham. Less, for some of their players, since James, Allan and Doucoure all arrived after the Spurs signings of Hojbjerg and Doherty. Irrespective of these potential pre-season issues, it is a bit alarming that any team filled with international footballers is capable of such a collectively melancholic display. So, how big an issue is this?

Well, the answer partly depends on the cause. Is this a mental issue, a physical issue, or both? Laziness and frame of mind can be separated from physical capability. If the fitness is there, the players will be capable of increasing intensity. They will be capable of running harder, faster, and longer. Should physical fitness be the issue- the mind is willing but the body just isn’t up to it- then increasing that fitness would naturally remedy the issue. Despite the fact serious questions would need to be asked of Tottenham’s fitness coaches were this to be the case, increasing fitness would hopefully generate some marked improvement.

If the issue is not physical, or not solely physical, however, this highlights a different problem. If the players are not, as Mourinho stated, in the right frame of mind, then questions need to be posed as to why they aren’t? From the All or Nothing Documentary on Amazon Prime, it is clear Mourinho still has the desire to win. He seems to be, in my opinion, exactly what classic Mourinho is reputed to be: a charismatic and personable tactician who demands a high level of work and responsivity from his players. It might take all his experience, but ultimately ensuring mental toughness and aptitude is part of his responsibility as coach. I do not know enough about the ins-and-outs of the Tottenham set-up to hypothesise why a mental malaise has occurred, but hopefully Mourinho has enough guile to identify the issue, and address it. If he cannot, a few more performances like Tottenham’s display against Everton and accusations will arise that he has lost the dressing room. Yes, it is one game, and it is incredibly early to make such a suggestion, but the reality is that is Mourinho cannot inspire more effort, he very well might have.

 For me, watching the game, another issue was clear. Everton came with a plan; Spurs did not. Everton set up to play on the counter, and when they discovered they were able to play to a far greater extent, they has the players in place to set the tempo and run the game. Allan, in his man of the match performance, was allowed to dominate by a spurs midfield who seemed to lack positional understanding, as well as intensity. James Rodriguez was given far too much space time and time again, and though he is a player who has notoriously failed to live up to his promise, he was an ever-constant source of creativity and goal threat for the Toffees.

Tottenham, by comparison, showed very little. Dele Alli playing in the Number 10 role demonstrated once again how out of his depth he is when required to show some spark of creativity. With Harry Winks behind him, our only other source of creativity, another underwhelming side-ways passing display from him meant the forwards were starved of service and left as frustrated as the fans. Never has Christian Eriksen been more missed than in this game.

This lack of creativity is, by comparison to the laziness and poor frame of mind, a far greater concern. Industry assists in many things in football. It helps you win the ball back, it helps you pressure the other team into mistakes, and it helps to get the fans onside to see you giving your all for the club they love. But that is as far as it goes. Against Everton on Sunday, that approach may well have seen a 0-0 draw rather than a 0-1 loss. But can industry alone win you matches? Sometimes, yes. That pressure will force a mistake and enable you to win, but what if you need more? Spurs simply do not have a player capable of unlocking the tightest of defences. Eriksen was that player, but Alli is not. He is not a player capable of making his way into another Top Six club. He would not make into the Wolves team, nor the Arsenal team, and on yesterday’s showing, he would not get close to the Everton team either. Yet, for Spurs, in the absence of Lo Celso, he is the only source of creativity we have. Alas, Alli is not good enough, nor has he been for a long time.

Lo Celso is a different player in that respect. He might be capable of unlocking defences, but is he enough on his own? In the more effective seasons, Christian Eriksen benefitted from having Moussa Dembele behind him. Two players with some guile capable of working the ball into dangerous situations. In addition, they also had Dele Alli, perhaps himself able to be more effective benefitting from, or adding to, the creativity of others, rather than bearing the burden alone.

For Lo Celso, he has no Moussa Dembele. As such, a key aspect of the creative process is missing. That link player from defensive areas to attacking areas is missing. Based on prior showings, I would suggest Lo Celso himself, might be that link player. Not only capable of transitioning defence to attack, demonstrated so effectively against Leicester in the 3-0 win following the restart last season, Lo Celso is also a tenacious tackler and willing runner. A partnership with Hojbjerg enabling defensive protection as well as a creative pivot. My view is that Lo Celso is the best replacement Spurs have for Moussa Dembele.

However, that leaves a problem further forward. If Lo Celso joins the midfield as the creative link player, there is no-one to fit into the attacking midfield trio to provide creativity further forward.

For Mourinho, a manager so used to winning, a quick review of his previous teams reveals that dual creative roles are a cornerstone of his teams. His first Chelsea team saw Frank Lampard in the creative central midfield pivot role, alongside defensively-minded Claude Makelele, and behind attacking creative midfielder Joe Cole. His second Chelsea team saw saw Cesc Fabregas in the creative central midfield pivot role, alongside defensively-minded Nemanja Matic, and behind attacking creative midfielder Oscar. A look at his Real Madrid side saw Xabi Alonso in the creative central midfield pivot role, alongside defensively-minded Sami Khedira, and behind attacking creative midfielder Mesut Ozil. At Inter Milan, he played Dejan Stankovic in the creative central midfield pivot role, alongside defensively-minded Esteban Cambiasso, and behind attacking creative midfielder Wesley Sneijder. Even at Porto, in his Champions League winning side, despite a slightly different formation Mourinho played with a creative central midfield pivot role occupied by Pedro Mendes, alongside a defensively-minded player, Costinha, and behind an attacking creative midfielder, Deco.

One player to transition defence into attack, another to unlock the defence. Lo Celso fits into either of those roles, but who else does? Dele Alli cannot perform that role, but he may benefit from another creative player coming in who could. The key part here, is ‘coming in’. There is a hole in the squad which needs to be filled, and there is no other player in the current squad effective enough to fill it. Kane, Son, Lucas, Bergwijn, Lamela – each of these players shows signs of creativity, but their talents lie elsewhere in the attacking third. They are not your Eriksen type of player. If Lo Celso assumes the Moussa Dembele central-midfield creative pivot role, who fills the attacking creative midfield role? Lo Celso cannot do both, and as such, if he plays further back then we lack an Eriksen, a Joe Cole, an Oscar, an Ozil, a Sneijder, a Deco.

This means Spurs need to invest in such a player but the current focal point appears to be securing another striker. Undoubtedly, another striker is also required, but it does not resolve the creativity issue. Harry Kane is one of the best strikers in the world, but he cannot score without the opportunities to score. What Tottenham need is a player to make those opportunities.

The game against Everton was very poor. Problems with fitness, mental and physical can be fixed, but the real problem is the lack of creativity. A Mourinho team needs two creative players. With Lo Celso, he has one such player. Without Lo Celso, he has no such players. What we saw against Everton wasn’t just a team playing without desire and intent, it was a team playing without ideas, and without the means to come up with some ideas. I am afraid to conclude that without at least one other creative player signed this season, expect a lot more games where we just don’t have the imagination to unlock a Sunday league pub team, let alone a top Premier League defence.

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