Scoring first, getting sent off later: also known as The Mitrović Path.
The times may be changing, but some things simply don’t. When Roy Keane once cited Alex Ferguson with a famous, yet disrespectful quote, he was referring to a gutless and clueless team. “Lads, it’s Tottenham” has been a synonym of a footballing eleven nobody would fear, nobody would recognize. Indeed: for the past 20 years, nobody would think they could get in any trouble when paired against Spurs in a Premier League game. After all, the trophy cabinet at White Hart Lane has seen only two new pieces of silverware in the past twenty years – both being rather obsolete, second-rate wins in the League Cup. Even with Gareth Bale winning Player of the Year accolade in 2013, the best Spurs could do was to win 72 points and finish fifth – always a whisker behind both Arsenal and the Champions League spots.
For Tottenham fans, last two decades passed in the spirit of a total resignation. It wasn’t like with Liverpool, when Scousers would eternally wonder why their Champions League glory doesn’t translate into domestic success. It wasn’t like with Manchester City or Chelsea, when their old guard of supporters would watch the club suddenly rising to relevance after massive cash injections. Even the media fuss over Bale’s supposedly most expensive transfer ever has left the WHL crowd relatively unfazed. Again – for a good reason. That memorable summer of £105 million transfer spendings has later led to a swift André Villas-Boas’ sacking and subsequent flops by new signings like Paulinho, Capoue, Chiricheș and Soldado. For many, the post-Bale implosion was a sign that the North London can never be white again.
Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Toby Alderweireld & Eric Dier are everything we were promised Paulinho, Soldado, Chiriches & Capoue would be.
— Corbit (@Corbit_THFC) April 18, 2016
But this season has easily been worse than the last 20 years of misery by Lilywhite’s supporters. It was worse because, for the first time in ages, the team has given them hope. In the season of upsets, shocks and bizarre declines, Spurs seemed like on of the few outlets of consistency – a solid, well-motivated and organized eleven with plenty of quality to offer at the both ends of the pitch. After a poor start to the season, they would reach a turning point by crushing Manchester City 4-1 and following it up with some merciless executions of many low-profile opponents. 5-1 over Bournemouth; 4-1 over Sunderland; 3-1 at Crystal Palace; 3-0 at Norwich – those were the games that cemented Tottenham’s reputation as a club that doesn’t give the small sides a chance – a trait invaluable in the times marked by the random chaos.
In February and March, there was still a point when everyone expected Pochettino’s lads to at least heavily scare Foxes on their way for a historic triumph. The team has scraped narrow wins over Watford and Swansea and brought home three points from Etihad after a back-and-forth game. Following a 0-1 West Ham setback, it would finally provide two excellent performances against top sides, barely missing a win over Arsenal (2-2) and subsequently manhandling Manchester United (3-0). The ruthless 4-0 victory at Stoke, where Poch would be absolutely livid about Dele Alli’s wasted chance despite his team remaining in a comfortable lead – that was truly something. Ambitions, skills and loads of confidence – by the looks of it, everything was falling right into place for a good finish.
However, it’s precisely the overwhelming ambition what failed them by the end of this campaign. Once the long-anticipated title challenge began to slip away from them, the frustration started to set in and become impossible to overcome. Dele Alli’s punch at Claudio Yacob’s stomach was the first sign of a storm, as he knew overcoming West Brom was already beyond Spurs’ ability on that day. The anger and desperation accumulated during the infamous Chelsea match, which Tottenham should have ended with at most nine players on the pitch. Again, it was the case of scoring an early lead, sloppily throwing it away afterwards and finally, releasing the subsequent stress through physical confrontation. Nine players booked, Mousa Dembélé suspended – it was the last thing they needed to hold the #2 spot.
Eventually, the immature handling of those tense situations has led the team to a disaster. Already against Southampton, Spurs with Ryan Mason covering up for Dembélé in the middle of the park have struggled to break down Ronald Koeman’s side. The only goal that went into Fraser Forster’s net was a result of a rather infamous offside-trap exploit by Harry Kane and Son’s long run. Afterwards, Saints scored from a situation in which one of the hosts’ defenders was lying on the pitch injured and shortly after, Kane failed to score one of the easiest one-on-ones he could imagine. Still, none of that is an excuse for allowing Steven Davis to casually receive the passes in front of Hugo Lloris’ penalty box. In the end, it was the Southampton’s #10, whose two, poorly-struck shots have led to the defeat.
The worst was still ahead of them, though. Already relegated Newcastle United is far from being the toughest opponent to finish your season off – especially in a situation, in which even a draw secures the only goal left to fight for. Magpies were very, very close to fielding the same team that was responsible for some immortal results such as 2-3 to Norwich, 1-5 to Crystal Palace or the most recent 0-0 against the abysmal Aston Villa. During the second half, they’ve lost their main goalscoring threat when Mitrović decided that he’d rather kick Kyle Walker than the ball he was in possession at the moment. But surprise – neither those facts nor the 38% possession by the visitors prevented Geordies from running a 5-1 riot with previously invisible Gini Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko as two main powerhouses!
— Premier League (@premierleague) May 15, 2016
It was truly a heartbreak of the worst kind. A 5-1 demolition was the heaviest defeat Spurs have suffered in any competition since March 2014, when Luis Suárez & Co. outplayed them 4-0 at Anfield. It also happened against the team that had the second-worst Premier League goalscoring record this season. But, above anything else, it allowed the sworn enemies from Arsenal to start endless celebrations of the event christened as “St. Totteringham’s day”. As the endless memes, wind-ups and banter messages kept flowing over the social media, Mauricio Pochettino has apologized to all the supporters who, for once, just wanted to finish the league above Gunners. No such luck – after the Sunday disaster, the “AFC above THFC” clock has reached 21 years – and it’s still ticking.
What could’ve been done differently? Clearly, Poch’s lads fell victim to their relative lack of experience and hotheadedness. Compare them to Chelsea last season – even under pressure from Manchester City’s six-game winning streak, José Mourinho’s side championed a very pragmatic approach, scoring three 1-0 wins, one 0-0 draw and one 1-1 draw in the last eight matches of their title-winning season. The same policy was needed for Spurs – except for the fact that they weren’t in the lead, so they were too distraught by wasted chances to think clearly about the lesser goal. And thus, it’s Leicester, not Arsenal, who ruined their shot at silver medal. Considering that Foxes have also dropped 6 points to Gunners earlier this season – Arsène Wenger owes Claudio Ranieri at least a bottle of wine.
— BBC 606 (@bbc606) May 15, 2016
For now, it’s time for Pochettino to reconsider all the pros and cons of this campaign. His lads drew 13 games – way too many to realistically think about the trophy. Out of those thirteen games, they botched the leads against Arsenal (twice), West Brom (twice again), Leicester (seconds after scoring 1-0 goal), Stoke (two-goal advantage) and Chelsea (also two goals up). That itself equals 14 points dropped due to the inability to kill the games while ahead. If Mourinho’s focal point of every won match has been the inclusion of John Obi Mikel with a 2-0 scoreline in the bag, Poch usually wasn’t even able to get his lads to such leads. In return, he got more safety at the back – the Newcastle defeat was only Spurs’ first loss by 3 goals or more this season – but a team that draws so many won games usually doesn’t succeed anyway.
After such an embarrassment, Spurs only have one silver line remaining – time. Time should provide this young pack of players with more experience and self-reflection on what went wrong. Hopefully, time will also nurture the footballing talents of Eric Dier and Dele Alli, who have just been called up for the Euro 2016 (along with Kyle Walker, Danny Rose and Harry Kane). Time should allow Pochettino to perhaps find a more suitable winger than hit-and-miss Erik Lamela and a back-up forward for Harry Kane (with young Clinton N’Jie performing poorly, it could be time to hire Olympique de Marseille’s thug, Michy Batshuayi).
Meanwhile, Arsenal are still stuck with Giroud-Walcott predicament upfront, have to shrug off the rumours about the departures of Özil and Sánchez, would welcome one more quality centre-back and are on a difficult quest for securing the services of Granit Xhaka. Today, they are victorious – but who knows what is going to happen a year from now?