Premier League Blues

by Paul Maslin

I applaud Poch's conclusion that he must regenerate, revitalise, reconstitute. Whatever "re" word you want to use. He knows the truth better than all of us.

I’ll get the glass half-full part of this out of the way quickly. In differing degrees, and for differing reasons, everything I am about to state about Spurs’ poor form in the Premier League for over 6 months now can also be said about the three other Top Six clubs in the same boat. And malaises don’t necessarily carry over to a new season, so despite five pretty average to poor halves out of six so far, there is ample chance to start making it right. And while we struggled in the league last winter and spring our coach and lads made some pretty nice progress in some other fairly prominent competition that more than made up for it.

Now for the half-empty. At least that. Since February 23 – so just over six months in real time – the Tottenham Hotspur of Mauricio Pochettino have played 15 games in the Premier League. They have won a grand total of four of those games, drawn three others, and lost eight. More than half, for a total of 15 points in 15 games. In other words, it’s sort of kind of relegation form. Gulp.

It is quite simply the worst sustained period of league play in the five plus years of Poch’s regime. A point underscored by the manager himself when he claimed his team is more “unsettled” now than at any other point since he has arrived. And I don’t think he’s merely talking about Christian Eriksen.

Let me run through the particulars before assessing the whys and wherefores.

The wins have all come at home. 2-0 over Palace in the debut of the new ground. 4-0 over last place Huddersfield (Lucas and his son). 1-0 over lowly Brighton in an excruciating but vital afternoon. Then 3-1 in this year’s opener over promotee Villa. All the goals coming in the final 20 minutes. The draws have been, along with the fortunate result at the Etihad, home to Woolwich in the final WHL fixture (thank you, Hugo) and home to Everton in a meaningless Sunday stroll in last year’s closer where only the rout of all routs could have put us in danger of not finishing Top Four.

The defeats have included two ugly 1-0 home losses. Hammers in April and Newcastle Sunday. Two away 1-0 defeats; another ugly affair with Bournemouth and to City just four days after THAT game. Three 2-1 scores, all away at Burnley, Southampton and Liverpool. And an away loss to Chelsea 2-0. Spurs scored just 3 goals in these 8 defeats, three of which were to quality sides and/or bogeyman grounds. But the other five were all against mid-table to bottom feeders.

If you knew nothing else about our side – the Champions League, our ultimate finish in the league last season – you’d conclude this is, at best, a mediocre one. The rationale for excusing the poor play in the final third of last season included a) injuries, b) lack of depth caused by those injuries and two windows with no signings and c) those two factors combining with the deepest of European runs to leave the team battered and burned out for the standard league play. Particularly since we never,outside of the Brighton game, appeared to be in serious danger of missing CL qualification. But you see, we know a lot more about our side and understand that the explanation cannot be limited to those elements or wished away by the three-game sample size of this nascent season.

They (Dyche, Bruce, Pelligrini, etc..) have either figured us out and how to stifle our scoring threats or the attack has gone stale. Or Poch has changed his approach – out of necessity or preference – and allowed the team to play passively far too often in the first half. Or the team has stopped listening to him. Or City/Pool have removed our guts and a few other organs with their brilliance with kills most of our hope and causes key players to allow their glance to wander elsewhere. Or maybe we punched above our weight for so long the fall had to come.

Or probably a bit of all of the above.

Whatever it is, but for an occasional short spell of brilliance, two solid games against Dortmund and two simply miraculous results in Manchester and Amsterdam – we don’t really score many goals anymore. And the brutally tight defence of two seasons ago has been replaced by a much less consistent one. Centre backs out of position, a goalkeeper who howls more often than in the past, a disturbing lack of focus in the first 10-15 minutes of games.

I applaud Poch’s conclusion that he must regenerate, revitalise, reconstitute. Whatever “re” word you want to use. He knows the truth better than all of us. And that all of this is difficult when Levy leaves the signings late. Key players are injured or just now returning to the squad and the Eriksen sword is hanging over everyone’s head. It might take many weeks or even several months to get this particular team to play its best and of course very few of us have any delusions of Top Two grandeur. Once you give up weeks or months to Pep and Klopp, one of the four trophy games is already over.

The flaws are obvious. No dependable right back, centre backs somewhere between fading (has Jan dropped off that badly?) and yet to fully arrive. The Dembele void still not filled. The two new midfielders needing time and yes, it must be said, decline in performance from the two young stars we thought we could build a long-term future around.

In both cases injuries have played a role, but that’s part of the deal, innit? Kane is simply not as dynamic or brutally efficient as he was two years and a gaggle of ankle injuries ago. With Dele I am beginning to think maybe he simply was never all that and a whole lot of people overrated him in his first “only cost 5 mill” seasons in our shirt.

Would a 5th or 6th place finish if two of Unai, Ole and Lamps figure it out be devastating? Or even if Leicester or Wolves slipped past us? No. We can’t be put in the position of always thinking one failed season will kill the club, kill the project, kill all the new hope that the past five years have brought. But it sure would/will be tough to stomach. I suspect we had better start girding ourselves for such an outcome this year. Eriksen will leave, maybe not til January, but he is in that Ozil/Sanchez/Lukaku position of not really being wanted or wanting to stay. It is hard for me to imagine he will flourish these next four months or so if he isn’t sold this coming week.

Could we still, as Poch’s teams have done in the past, find our way as we approach the festive season and make cup runs or a league push that restores our position? Sure. Will it win the trophy everyone thinks we so desperately need? Are City and Liverpool not in those competitions? And wouldn’t it be ironic if the trophy came along with a ticket to Thursday nights next season or even no European nights at all. Think that League Cup will still be gleaming when the lights are off midweek and there are no 60,000 bodies enjoying the fun?

These are tough times. It may that our apogee as a club – in the current iteration of manager and key players – was the second that Sadio Mane kicked that ball toward the box and Sissoko’s arm in Madrid. Sports can be that way. Push, get better, strive, improve, push, slip back, push again, see the finish line, realise you won’t get there first, stumble, tire, and then, when it’s long done, think back and realise “we almost did it.”

No tragedy and many memories. But perhaps it might be a good while -hopefully not 50 years – before it all approaches again. Hopefully.

It’s the hope that kills you.

Author

Paul Maslin

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