“The football this weekend is like a final for us at Burnley. It’s going to be key in the future of the competition, the Premier League. It’s a massive three points.”
Mauricio Pochettino saw little point in playing down the significance of the trip to Turf Moor and even less reason to hide his frustration at the outcome of it. Indeed, this is a massive three points that Spurs failed to seize.
Victory at Turf Moor at the start of a huge week for Pochettino and his men would have put the Premier League title race in their own hands. Moving to within two points of Manchester City and Liverpool with both sides still to face as the pacesetters approach the home straight would have given Spurs some initiative in a sprint many refused to accept they were even running. Instead, defeat to buoyant Burnley gives Liverpool added motivation as they embark upon a potentially season-defining week of their own.
Given Manchester United’s form and City’s inactivity in the Premier League, it is quite feasible that Spurs could finish the weekend having lost the game but no further ground on the top two. But even Pochettino would struggle to put a positive spin on this set-back.
Burnley’s recent form – eight games unbeaten which is now their best run in the top flight since 1966 – was presumably one of the factors in Pochettino’s wariness before heading to Lancashire, as was the frustration Sean Dyche caused Spurs at Wembley in December when it took a last-gasp Christian Eriksen goal to break the Clarets’ resistance. It provoked Pochettino into rushing Harry Kane straight into back into his starting line-up, though the threat of Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes did not concern the Spurs boss greatly enough to consider a more experienced defensive choice than Juan Foyth in his back three.
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Pochettino rotated his rearguard and, again, the shape of it with the inclusion of Foyth for the first time in 11 Premier League matches. The 21-year-old has obvious potential but he struggled to show it at Burnley, where Barnes was honest enough to admit that the home side identified the Argentine as a weakness that could be exploited.
Burnley mounted more than half of their first-half attacks down the left, where Barnes and Wood took it in turns to pull on to Foyth, rather than go up against Jan Vertonghen or Toby Alderweireld. With right wing-back Serge Aurier struggling to do his own job let alone help Foyth with his, it left the rookie fighting too many battles against Burnley’s battle-hardened battering rams.
Foyth’s most costly mistake came on 57 minutes, when Wood shook off his marker with too much ease to nod in Burnley’s opener via the underside of the crossbar. Having spent the previous hour getting his eye in, Kane proved he was back up to speed already by sliding an equaliser past Tom Heaton, which prompted another mid-game switch of shape from Pochettino, something he has felt necessary during their last six Premier League matches. Foyth was hooked in exchange for Erik Lamela has Spurs went looking for a winner.
When it came, it was Barnes and Burnley who were celebrating after the home side seized on more sloppiness from Aurier. Dyche’s substitution, not Pochettino’s, proved decisive as Johann Berg Gudmundsson drove at a weary, disjointed back four before pulling his shot into Barnes’ path for a simple tap-in.
Despite their recent habit of scoring late goals, Spurs’ belief evaporated and their fightback carried all the conviction of Lamela’s header in the final minute of added time, which was their only real opportunity to plunder a draw, despite Kane, Fernando Llorente, Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela all playing ahead of Eriksen.
Pochettino and his assistants carried rather more threat when they approached Mike Dean at full-time. What provoked the Spurs manager to fly off the handle at the official will presumably come out amid the fall-out, even though Pochettino was unwilling to state on the record what caused him to flip.
Though it seems unlikely, perhaps Pochettino’s reaction was simply born of frustration. This was in every way an infuriating start to a pivotal eight-day period during which Spurs go to Chelsea on Wednesday before concluding with a north London derby at Wembley next Saturday. It was billed as a week-long test of Spurs title credentials, another which they have failed barely before it had begun.