There’s not much to like about Tottenham at the moment. Mistakes continue to happen at an alarming rate, and the competitiveness that’s defined Mauricio Pochettino’s tenure has vanished.
Spurs had little drive against Liverpool on Saturday, giving away the ball cheaply on numerous occasions en route to a 2-1 defeat. As ever, the Reds were quick to pounce on each and every turnover.
The easiest explanation is exhaustion. Tottenham had a record nine players in the World Cup semifinals – virtually all of them were starters for their countries – and lost Heung-Min Son to the Asian Games shortly after the Premier League season kicked off. The likes of Harry Kane had to log minutes when a breather was justified.
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Some sides can conceal the fatigue with a more patient approach, using possession as a kind of coping mechanism. Spurs aren’t built that way. Pochettino demands pressing, quick touches, and lots of running, and when the players can’t meet those physical demands, the whole thing crumbles.
There’s not a lot of time to make up lost ground, not with Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester City leading the way. City only dropped 14 points all of last season, and the Blues and Reds have already closed the gap by winning all five of their opening matches. The margin for error, at least for teams in the very top bracket, has never been smaller in the Premier League era.
Make no mistake, it’s Tottenham’s aspiration to be at the top. The promise of silverware is what’s keeping these players around.
Pochettino isn’t innocent in all of this. He’s failed to make the right adjustments so far this season, relying solely on Lucas Moura’s pace to drive the attack. It worked against Manchester United, but it’s a game plan that’s become all too predictable. The Brazilian often ran into cul-de-sacs as he took on multiple defenders at a time.
The decision to mirror Liverpool’s 4-3-3 formation also backfired. Neither Eric Dier nor Mousa Dembele shielded the defense adequately, and both players were careless in possession. Meanwhile, Kieran Trippier, who’s used to playing as a wing-back, was caught too high up the pitch.
Another worrying trend is developing in defense. Tottenham have allowed 14.4 shots per game, nearly double the tally of Liverpool and City. If it’s the title Spurs want, they have to relieve the burden at the back, especially with the error-prone Michel Vorm in place of the injured Hugo Lloris for the next few weeks.
Perhaps the greatest concern is the fact they’ve conceded all five goals from headers. That’s a failure of execution and basic training. It happened on the first goal Saturday at Wembley when a combination of blunders – Vorm’s weak punch and Dier’s poor attempt to clear – gave Georginio Wijnaldum a clear sight of goal.
When it all goes belly up, there’s nothing Tottenham can do. The absence of a backup plan cost them in previous seasons, and it’s even more apparent with a tired squad that’s used to playing at only one speed. They’ve struggled to use possession to their advantage, and some of their most embarrassing defeats have come with a greater share of the ball.
Pochettino had called on his players to be aggressive against Liverpool and “to go and kill with every single action,” but instead, they shirked from the challenge. They lost second balls in midfield and foot races on the flanks. They were second best all over the pitch. Kane did little to get involved and Dier continued to make poor decisions on the ball.
But the problems run far deeper than their individual form. The collective effort just isn’t there. They haven’t played like a cohesive unit or a team with a purpose. Fatigue is certainly a factor, but Pochettino has also railed against complacency. It’s unfathomable to think a side that last won a trophy in 2008 has lost any hunger, but it’s also not the first time the manager has noticed a drop in focus.
Pochettino described his team’s effort against Watford “like going to Hyde Park with my child,” and although he was more supportive of his players Saturday, the performance wasn’t much better. There’s a clear disconnect here that threatens to keep Tottenham from progressing and attaining what they ultimately want.