There might be 196 miles between Old Trafford and Wembley, but England’s two biggest football stadia seemed incredibly close on Wednesday evening, during Tottenham’s first Champions League game in five years. Four days after Jose Mourinho’s over-adventurous team selection had caused his own midfield a headache, Mauricio Pochettino repeated the unimpressive trick.
The build-up to the game had focused almost solely on Tottenham’s decision to follow Arsenal’s lead and play their European home matches at the national stadium, with Ray Parlour and Harry Redknapp towards the front of a queue only too happy to offer their concern. The atmosphere, pitch size and unfamiliarity were all touted as reasons for Tottenham’s likely struggles in their temporary home; nobody had the word ‘Pochettino’ on their list.
As it happened, worries over the atmosphere proved unfounded. Tottenham made Wembley their own with some well-placed branding and a record crowd for an English team at home. After a five-year absence from European football’s premier trophy, Spurs supporters were ready to go marching in in party mood. The noise at kick-off was immense.
Instead, it was Pochettino’s team selection that popped the first balloon. Mousa Dembele has been suspended for Tottenham’s opening four league games thanks to last season’s misdemeanours, but the expectation was that the Belgian would be recalled at the earliest possible opportunity. In a competitive field, Dembele was the star of their 2015/16 season.
Pochettino had other ideas, rewarding Heung-min Son’s weekend brace with a start but also recalling Erik Lamela to the team. That meant breaking up the Victor Wanyama-Eric Dier axis and moving Dele Alli into a deeper role. If the pre-match suspicion was that Pochettino was trying to fit five players into four positions, so it proved.
Just as with Marouane Fellaini on Saturday, Eric Dier was left isolated when Tottenham lost possession and the opposition countered. Just as with Paul Pogba, Dele Alli was unable to roam forward fully but also ineffective in a defensive role that fails to offer his best side to the camera. Just as with Manchester United, Tottenham’s defensive mistakes made it easy for capable opponents. Just as on Saturday, Tottenham gained a lifeline just before half-time. Just as on Saturday, that goal did not dissuade the manager from making a change. Dembele came on, Alli was pushed forward; the door shut an hour after the horse had bolted.
It took three minutes of the second half for the difference to be noted, Alli nutmegging Andrea Raggi and sending a dipping shot just over the bar. Suddenly Tottenham were pinning Monaco back. The second half became an extended exercise of attack vs defence. There was one slightly farcical period when Tottenham won five corners in two minutes.
Just as at Old Trafford on Saturday, the visitors stayed strong. Tottenham knocked on the door but never truly threatened to blow it down. Pochettino’s other two second-half substitutions actually hindered progress, while the early-season travails of Harry Kane show little sign of abating. Three shots on target in six games for club and country this season is a meagre return. Kane’s effort cannot be faulted, nor too his link-up play outside the area, but his penalty box actions remind us of a clumsy young police officer, desperate to impress but trampling all over the evidence. The goals, and the form, will hopefully come soon.
This was a night for Tottenham to learn a Champions League lesson. Monaco had seven shots compared to the 16 that Spurs allowed Stoke during their 4-0 weekend victory, but Leonardo Jardim’s team are a damn sight more efficient and effective than Mark Hughes’. Quite why Jan Vertonghen showed Bernardo Silva onto his left foot is unclear, but he certainly won’t do so twice.
This is not a cause for widespread pant-wetting, of course, but it was a sobering night for Pochettino and Tottenham against the fourth seeds in Group E. It’s a romantic notion to play an attacking, expansive brand of football and beat the team top of Ligue Un, but the reality is mightily difficult. Spurs supporters filing out of their temporary new home might wonder if a little more pragmatism – and a lot more Dembele – might have brought a more satisfactory result.