Tottenham have nobody to blame but themselves for their currently threadbare squad.
A once-hopeful campaign rife with ambition has been derailed by a series of injuries, and it all could have been prevented – or at least assuaged – so easily.
Spurs confirmed Tuesday that Dele Alli’s hamstring injury sustained during Sunday’s last-ditch win over Fulham was a serious one, with the English international expected to return to first-team training in March. That timescale mirrors that of talismanic striker Harry Kane, and quite suddenly, Mauricio Pochettino’s squad is missing 19 of its 48 league goals. Heung-min Son’s Asian Cup sojourn with South Korea makes that 27 of 48 tallies unaccounted for, and Moussa Sissoko is also out until the start of February with a groin knock.
This summer, Tottenham became the first Premier League side not to sign a player during the marquee transaction window dating back to its 2003 introduction, and as such, they became an anecdote in English footballing lore for all the wrong reasons. With an always-rising £850-million stadium construction tightening the purse strings, the 2018-19 season marked a transitional phase for a club desperate to end an 11-year wait for silverware while burgeoning into an outfit the magnitude of those they compete alongside.
That now hangs perilously in the balance.
Spurs will be without Alli and Kane for both Thursday’s League Cup semi-final second-leg at Chelsea and the FA Cup fourth-round trip to Crystal Palace three days later. Up a goal on London rivals Chelsea, the League Cup presents Pochettino’s charges with the best shot at a trophy since they lost the 2014-15 final to the Blues. Alli and Kane will also miss out on both legs of the Champions League last-16 clash with Borussia Dortmund, and despite a seven-point cushion protecting Tottenham’s coveted top-four spot, that is now at risk with Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United all breathing down their necks. Pivotal league dates with Chelsea and Arsenal also fall during the expected recovery periods.
Considering Tottenham’s cupboards were already bare and the club boasted the most semi-finalists at the World Cup, this was all too predictable.
This season was always going to be one where Tottenham’s limited resources were put to the test. Pochettino claimed before the ailments to Alli and Kane – two players with already poor injury records – that Spurs couldn’t afford to dip their toes in the frigid waters of the winter window.
Whatever the cost of bringing players in would amount to a value far less than the millions of pounds Spurs could be without if they drop outside the top four. Failure to qualify for the Champions League could also trigger an exodus of talent, with Real Madrid linked with a move for both Christian Eriksen and Pochettino, the latter also a reported target for Manchester United.
Perhaps Tottenham could have recovered some of the £17 million splashed for Vincent Janssen following a drab loan move to Fenerbahce. Instead, the 24-year-old is gathering dust with the Under-23 side as Pochettino insists there’s no room for the Dutchman in the first team. Perhaps the academy could have yielded an attacking talent to join the likes of Harry Winks and Kyle Walker-Peters as those to make the jump from the youth ranks to the senior side. Certainly, some squad rotation could have benefitted a side that will now rely heavily on fringe players. That blame can lay at the manager’s feet.
Dele Alli played the full 90 minutes of a foreseeable FA Cup battering of Tranmere, and Harry Kane was brought on with 15 minutes to play and Spurs up 6-0. Fernando Llorente started the match, and it was the first time in two months that he played more than an hour of first-team football. Pacey winger Georges-Kevin Nkoudou made his first league appearance of the season against Fulham, playing all of four minutes whilst delivering the incisive cross that resulted in Winks’ dramatic match-winner. Now, Pochettino is forced to lean on the likes of Llorente and Nkoudou to keep Tottenham’s season afloat, and perhaps he would have been better served by sprinkling them into the squad before reaching this ominous stage of the season.
Lots of “what-ifs,” but with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps Spurs could have made a move for attacking midfielder Max Meyer, who joined Crystal Palace in the summer on a free deal from Schalke. Or maybe, they could have coerced Borussia Dortmund into loaning Andre Schurrle to them and not Fulham, or made similarly frugal additions the ilk of Jordan Ayew or Raul Jimenez. Not the kind of names that would move the needle, but certainly the type that could help Tottenham in short spurts. Heck, even versatile attacker Kevin Prince-Boateng could have been had this January before Barcelona swooped in for a cut-rate fee.
“Sometimes in football you need to behave differently. If we are happy with our squad and cannot improve our squad, sometimes it’s better to keep our squad together,” Pochettino admitted in August.
The manager may now feel differently about that.