Early loser: Spurs, somehow even worse than everyone expected

Dave Tickner
Tottenham woe Brighton

It takes a £15m-a-year serial winner to come in and change a club’s fortunes and slowly but surely Jose Mourinho is doing that with Spurs, gaining revenge for last year’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at Brighton under Mauricio Pochettino by losing only 1-0 this time.

The haters and doubters will point out that this is still pretty bad against a team without a single solitary win in their previous 15 Premier League home games, while naysayers will say this performance and result are particularly damning because Mourinho’s Spurs somehow contrived to be even worse than everyone already expected them to be, which was very bad indeed.

This, it is fair to say, was a very bad performance. Cartoonishly bad. Like a parody of a bad Jose Mourinho side playing badly from a fever dream in the head of Jose Mourinho’s worst enemy. If it hadn’t been real you wouldn’t quite have believed it. People – blessed, fortunate people – who didn’t witness it will say to the dead-eyed survivors “Oh it can’t have been that bad.” You weren’t there, man. You weren’t there. The comparisons to last year’s defeat here are quick and obvious, but there is little doubt this might be a narrower defeat on the scoresheet but is a more damaging, dispiriting one overall. Coming off the back of… whatever that non-performance was against Liverpool, Spurs simply couldn’t possibly be that poor again and yet somehow managed to be even worse.

Mourinho, having fallen out with both his right-backs this week, opted for Moussa Sissoko on the right-hand side of a 3-4-3 that never looked right throughout a mortifying first half in which Spurs’ defence was positionally all over the place and the attack almost entirely non-existent. Steven Bergwijn’s shot dragged wide from 25 yards on the half-hour was Spurs’ first of any kind in 70 minutes of football going back to Thursday night. They had been behind and, in theory, chasing the game for 55 of those 70 minutes.

That they trailed only 1-0 at the break owed more to Brighton’s own fragile confidence and lack of composure and assurance in the final third. That’s a bit more understandable, though, because Brighton aren’t very good. It’s customary in pieces like this one to say something like “of course, we shouldn’t lose sight of how well Brighton played” before swiftly getting back to giving the underperforming ‘big’ team a well-deserved kicking. But Brighton didn’t really play that well. If they had, they’d have scored four or five. They started brightly, correctly sensing Spurs would be devoid of confidence after Thursday and uncertain of their formation, and the goal was well worked. But only winning this game 1-0 is a big worry for Brighton moving forward. They will have no easier assignment than this between now and the end of the season and remained theoretically vulnerable to missing out on the win until the very last seconds.

Spurs were marginally better in the second half than they had been in the first, if only because it was quite literally impossible to be anything but. Carlos Vinicius looked…okay when he came on and, most significantly, Spurs had their best (only non-horrific) five minutes of the whole evening just after Erik Lamela replaced the entirely ineffectual Gareth Bale on the hour.

Two moments in the second half summed the whole game up for Tottenham. The first was a visibly exasperated Lamela going for goal from a 40-yard free-kick because he had absolutely no other option. It did at least boost the shots on target stats. The second was a spectacular goal-line block from Toby Alderweireld when Brighton looked certain to add a second in the closing minutes. This was notable because it was by a wide margin the most eye-catching and impressive thing any Spurs player did all evening. That feels important. The standout moment at Brighton for a Spurs team that was top of the league as recently as last month was a clearance that kept the score at 1-0. That was the highlight. That was the best bit.

It was a really bad performance, is what we’re saying here. We’re racking our brains for a worse Spurs performance than this, and you do have to be careful when assessing any performance in the immediate white heat of its offensive dreadfulness, and concluded that it really might be in the two points from eight games era under Juande Ramos. Spurs have lost to poor sides and been thrashed by good ones plenty of times since then, but rarely if ever have they looked so utterly bereft as they did here. Defensively confused, offensively irrelevant. Spurs have gone from trying and failing to sit on 1-0 leads to sitting on 1-0 deficits. The Plan A that relied on scoring at least twice from three or four attacks was flawed enough with Harry Kane in the side. Without him, it’s doomed.

The absence of Kane is huge, of course it is. But only inasmuch as his outrageous brilliance has been masking at least some of Spurs’ deficiencies for an awful long time. Even so, Spurs’ attacking threat has been in regression for several weeks now; Kane’s injury merely exacerbates existing flaws to the point of absurdity.

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A run of nine points from nine games has taken Spurs from table-toppers to also-rans – even the top four now looks beyond them; there are quite simply more than four teams far better than this – and it’s a run that should place Mourinho in serious jeopardy.

His favourite thing in recent weeks faced with previous poor performances has been to finger individual errors (never his own) for things going awry. That’s going to be tough to pull off here. Spurs’ ineptitude here was, in its way, a triumph of collective action. They were dreadful as a group. There was no specific error that could be pinpointed that brought the whole gameplan to its knees. It was just the wrong team playing the wrong tactics in the wrong game, and doing all of it ponderously, fearfully and badly. This one is on the manager at least as much as it is the players.

And it really doesn’t look like getting better any time soon. Mourinho will point to Spurs still being in contention for three trophies this season, and he’s right. But that achievement needs caveats. They beat Chelsea on penalties and two Championship sides after a third-round bye to reach the Carabao final. They’ve beaten Marine and Wycombe to reach the last 16 of the FA Cup. Elimination in the Europa League group stage would have been an unthinkable disaster.

The delayed Carabao Cup final this year means the illusion of competing for something will last a bit longer than it otherwise would have – and knowing Mourinho he’ll probably go and somehow win that final just to spite us all – but things could come to a head before Wembley. Spurs face Chelsea, Manchester City and West Ham in the league over the coming weeks and look a long shot to extend their FA Cup involvement at Everton’s expense. If those games go the way form and logic currently dictate…

At present speed and course, Mourinho might not make the return of Europa League football next month, never mind April’s League Cup final. Right now this is a team and manager devoid of ideas. It was entirely predictable that Spurs would be bad tonight, and yet they still managed to draw a gasp. And it still feels like things can go downhill even from here.

Dave Tickner