Ange Postecoglou makes first misstep as Spurs manager – but it’s a big one

Dave Tickner
Ange Postecoglou with his Spurs players after Carabao exit
Ange Postecoglou with his Spurs players after Carabao exit

There were a good couple of weeks there this season where, for once, the joke was not on Spurs.

Obviously, that couldn’t last. Obviously, those first three games were all just part of an elaborate set-up for a fall.

And there it was. The brave new era that was going to change the perception of this football club has, three weeks in, seen them become the first Premier League club knocked out of any competition this season as one of the two semi-realistic routes to ending that occasionally mentioned trophy drought went up in smoke. In August.

There is plenty of mitigation. The draw had opened the door for Spursiness to allow Tottenham to march emphatically through it. Fulham away is about as tough a Carabao second-round draw as it’s possible to get. One of them had to go out and there is obviously no conspicuous shame in losing to Fulham on penalties at Craven Cottage after a 1-1 draw.

But the manner of it all was hugely disappointing and marks a first but pretty significant misstep for Ange Postecoglou.

Making nine changes just before an international break in a season with no European distractions against a determinedly competent Premier League team was inviting trouble that duly arrived.

There is a decent argument that if you’re not going to win a cup then the best time to go out is as early as possible. No point wasting time and effort on a tournament you don’t even win. But that’s a dreary way to look at football, and doesn’t match the Angeball vibes that have underpinned the transformation of the mood around the club in the last few months.

For years, Spurs fans have bemoaned the club’s arrogant, airily dismissive attitude to the domestic cups and lesser European trophies. There was hope, even expectation, that Postecoglou and his oft-stated fondness for just winning every single game might produce a change in direction.

It’s not a Postecoglou problem, it’s a Tottenham problem. Every manager since Harry Redknapp – and Spurs have had managers of wildly differing style, philosophy and frankly competence in that time – has treated these competitions the same way. It is clearly club policy. Managers are judged on getting as high up the league as possible and as far into the Champions League as possible on the occasions they scramble their way into it. That’s all that matters.

Sure, Spurs have had a few cup runs in that time because they’ve often been a very good team. Draws open up, and they find themselves in a semi-final or even a final. But cast your mind back across the last 15 years and try to remember the last time Spurs beat a properly good team in a domestic cup tie. Take your time.

There’s two. A 2-0 win Carabao win at the Emirates in the peak Dele-Kane era, and a penalty shootout win against Chelsea in the 2020/21 Carabao run after a 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane. That’s it. In the FA Cup, not a single victory over elite opposition in the Big Six era, and plenty of defeats to non-elite opposition. Their cup runs may accidentally reach the latter stages sometimes, but they always end the moment a good side is across the pitch if note before. Spurs don’t just not win trophies but literally only care about winning the two trophies they have almost no chance of actually winning.

Last night’s defeat for a second-string XI shows that absolutely nothing has changed. And the idea that everything has changed is key to the appeal of Angeball. It has also dented another element of Postecoglou’s appeal: his plain-speaking. A man not afraid to be righteously dismissive of snide or leading questions and issue the clearest and fairest and most honest assessment of the situation – usually with “mate” at the end said in a way that somehow makes it rhyme with “c**t” – has not been far off gaslighting on this one.

Before the game he said changes he made would only be to help the team win. After the game he said if he didn’t make changes then how could he learn about his players? It’s disappointingly disingenuous.

If this truly were just another game then why was this the one where he had to look at all the other players? After naming an unchanged XI in back-to-back Premier League wins? He could at least have been true to himself and admitted the Carabao was not a priority this season, that while he understands the fans’ frustrations at the long wait for silverware, this is the start of a rebuild that will be long and difficult.

Most baffling of all, though, is that it’s hard to see how those wholesale changes even benefit Spurs in the long run this season. They had a curtailed pre-season with a game against Leicester postponed due to bad weather. They have a new centre-back pairing playing in front of a new goalkeeper and behind an entirely new midfield. A few changes here and there make sense for a midweek game, but retaining the core of a side still getting to know each other surely made more sense. Especially with another break on the way.

Everyone knew Spurs would have a fall. Everyone knows the way Spurs play now is going to have days when it goes horribly wrong as well as the days it goes spectacularly right. Most fans are happy enough with that trade-off. And that makes this disappointing, because this was not even Spurs falling and failing on their own accepted terms. This wasn’t a free-flowing, all-action cup exit. This was the way Antonio Conte might have gone out of a cup competition.

Postecoglou is clearly a good manager with fine tactics who has identified a first XI that can follow his plans pretty well. Spurs are still going to be decent this season. It’s not going out of the Carabao Cup that matters, not really. It’s the way the bubble has been burst, the mood deflated.

And above all, the sense that as far as the club is concerned this setback that once again places the fans at the mercy of rival fans’ mockery isn’t even a setback at all.