Title challengers to top four hopefuls in the space of ten days? Even allowing for the hyperbole that comes with being forced to shift expectations according to two or three results, Tottenham’s season is in danger of crumbling. From marching in, the Spurs are suddenly falling down.
At the King Power on Tuesday, Mauricio Pochettino’s team ran into a Leicester City 2015/16 tribute act hitting all those familiar notes. Jamie Vardy hassled and harried alongside Shinji Okazaki, and scored a goal of wondrous quality, while Riyad Mahrez displayed the magic touch that leaves you in disbelief that he is still a Leicester player. When required to stand tall and tough, the defence played their part.
For those who attacked Leicester for a perceived lack of ambition when they appointed Claude Puel and accused the Frenchman of turgid and uninspiring football, this was quite the retort. If this team played a better half of football in their title-winning campaign under Claudio Ranieri, I cannot recall it. It was defined by Vardy’s finish – impudence and improvisation from a player who we usually associate with frenzy.
Yet for all Leicester’s majesty, it was more than eclipsed by a wretched Tottenham performance over the first 75 minutes of the match. “The feeling is much better when you play away from home than at Wembley,” said Pochettino on the morning of the game. The manager cannot blame Wembley Stadium for this ineptness, and Spurs have now won one of their last five league games. Given the competition within the top six, that form inevitably sees you slip down the league.
They did, eventually, put Leicester under serious pressure, before and after Kane’s thrashed consolation. It was enough to stop any away supporter from leaving the ground and filled the home support with enough nerves to provoke cacophonous cheers for every clearance and refereeing decision in their favour. But it should not take Tottenham falling behind to be spurred into such action.
Without becoming a broken record, it’s difficult not to put this latest defeat down to fatigue from a group of players without sufficient competition for places. Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Harry Kane looked badly jaded against West Brom, yet 72 hours later all three started again. Pochettino was able to make changes, but only in the positions in which he has back-up. That only covers full-back and central midfield.
If burn-out in Tottenham’s attack seems like a handy excuse, there is evidence to back it up. Since August 2014, Eriksen (184), Kane (155) and Alli (158) have started a combined 491 matches for club and country. All three are at the age when energy is not in short supply, but that is a ludicrous workload. By way of example, Eriksen has now neither scored nor assisted a goal in six league matches.
The obvious problem lies in Tottenham’s other options. Erik Lamela returned to the bench after 13 months out with injury and provided an assist with his third touch, but Moussa Sissoko started and was that special kind of hopeless where his mere presence in the team is a hindrance. Sissoko has all the exactness of a dizzy panda. His substitution was cheered by the away support.
Even the new Plan B, Fernando Llorente, has failed to offer any positive impact. His introduction sparks a period of direct football that more often than not makes Tottenham less effective at creating chances, and his miss from three yards made the away support groan in unison.
Yet fatigue can only go so far. It cannot explain why Eric Dier was losing possession with such alarming regularity that he was moved into central midfield from central defence as Pochettino changed formation mid-game for the second match in succession. It does not explain why even Mousa Dembele, usually the epitome of central midfield control, was haphazard. It does not explain why Serge Aurier’s decision-making in both boxes makes him so unreliable.
Even Pochettino deserves censure. He stuck with the three-man central defence despite it requiring surgery on Saturday, while Heung-Min Son has been far sharper than Alli in recent weeks yet was left on the bench again. Danny Rose has been vocal in his displeasure at being frozen out of the team thanks to his very public summer disobedience, and then was picked at left wing-back against one of the most dangerous wingers in the country over the more defensively capable Davies.
If Sissoko was Tottenham’s worst player, Rose was their most disappointing. He continues to get into excellent attacking positions, but his delivery was abysmal and he twice crossed wires with Eriksen when the ball was simply passed out of play. It was Rose who was caught upfield for Mahrez’s game-clinching goal. Suddenly there may be a place in England’s World Cup team up for grabs.
Pochettino will make the very reasonable point that his team does not have the resources of the Manchester clubs or Chelsea, and that fourth place would still represent achievement. Yet there’s nothing quite so disappointing as having to scale back the ambitions of late summer before the season has even half played out. “Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happening again,” chanted the Leicester fans after the final whistle. You do wonder…