Only 10 months after Tottenham reached the European Cup final they hit the buffers in Leipzig – it looks like a long way back
Jonathan Liew at the RB Arena – The Guardian
Tottenham players head back to the halfway line after conceding the opening goal to Marcel Sabitzer of Leipzig. Photograph: Michael Sohn/AP
So farewell then, Tottenham. Who knows when our paths will cross again? A fixture they embarked upon with a puncher’s chance and plenty of underdog spirit ended merely in crippling defeat and more questions. A broken team that under the joyless stewardship of José Mourinho has been broken still further, they looked here exactly what they are: the eighth‑best team in the Premier League, exhausted and error-prone, bad in defence and bad in attack, with no discernible long-term strategy and no identifiable short-term plan.
Ten months ago Tottenham rocked up in Amsterdam and sprinkled miracles all over the Ajax turf. That seems a long time ago now. And as the second half began to tick away, one could almost feel those memories draining away with Spurs’ hope. Occasionally Érik Lamela or Lucas Moura would shrug off his Leipzig marker and find himself with space to run. But without a functional attacking system to support them, to provide decoys or passing options, running was all they could do: into an inevitable dead‑end of white shirts and white noise.
And so perhaps it is time to bid farewell not just to a Champions League campaign but also to a team, an era, an idea. Christian Eriksen, Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose have gone and not been adequately replaced. Hugo Lloris and Jan Vertonghen are in sharp decline. Harry Kane, Son Heung-min, Dele Alli, Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier, all either injured or stagnant. Meanwhile the manager who made them all sing is now the most coveted unemployed coach in the sport. These are the sorts of losses that only the very elite clubs can weather for long. And at present Tottenham are nobody’s idea of that.
However, departures and absences go only part of the way to explaining why so many of Tottenham’s remaining players have gone into such sharp decline. Perhaps there are physical factors at play, the immense workload these players have shouldered over the years: a thin, undernourished squad competing at maximum intensity in four competitions. Perhaps this is why Tottenham’s ravenous high-pressing game began to collapse under Mauricio Pochettino and has now gone into full-blown retreat under Mourinho.
And yet here, at least in parts, it made a remarkable comeback. In stark contrast to some of their recent displays against top opposition, Tottenham raced out of the blocks: meeting Leipzig high up the pitch, snapping into their tackles, hunting as a pack. The game was open, the passing vertical and direct and agreeably impatient. Briefly, fleetingly, it felt as if Mourinho had finally decided to throw off the handbrake. Everything, in fact, was going to plan; with the exception of two minor inconveniences. First, they had not created anything remotely resembling a decent chance. Secondly, they were 2-0 down inside 21 minutes.
Marcel Sabitzer’s two-goal blitz perfectly illustrated the reliable midfield goal threat that Tottenham have been so lacking. Remarkably no Tottenham midfielder has scored in the Premier League or Champions League since Moussa Sissoko in December. This is a failure not just of individuals but also of tactics: goalscoring midfielders are a measure of territorial dominance, of playing the game in the opposition half and creating chances in dangerous areas. But if the defence is sitting deep and the attack consists of sporadic breakaways and forlorn long balls, then the midfield is essentially a factotum: a means of shovelling the ball somewhere else, before settling in for the next wave of defensive pressure.
Late in the game Mourinho summoned his assistant João Sacramento to his side and simply shrugged at him, like a customer returning a defective phone to a retailer. Look, João. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried all the buttons. I’ve tried playing 5‑4‑1 at home. I’ve tried throwing my club’s record signing under the bus on live television. Now I’ve tried to gegenpress one of the best teams in Europe with a knackered team and a bare minimum of preparation. It’s a dud.
In a way Tottenham’s current travails merely underline what a stunning job Pochettino did for those few magical seasons. His main triumph was not as a tactician or a trainer but as an evangelist. With the help of a talented staff, an imaginative physical regime and the power of dreams, he made players better by convincing them there were no ceilings on their talent. He built a palace and, even if it was beginning to crumble by the time he left, there were surely alternatives to burning the thing down and starting again.
Where now from here? Those fatal summers of under-investment will take more than one window to address, especially with a heavy stadium debt to service. The bruised egos and shattered confidence may take longer still. Tottenham need new players but they also need new hope. They need to believe that the qualities that brought them so close to the summit of the game can be rediscovered. Farewell then, Tottenham. It might be a while.