A month and a day ago, Tottenham secured a victory that forced the football world to take notice. Mauricio Pochettino’s young side have been the Premier League’s most consistent performers over the past two seasons, yet beating the European and Spanish champions so convincingly felt like a watershed moment. Tottenham had pulled up a seat at the top table, and did not look out of place.
Four days after thrashing Real Madrid last month, Tottenham scraped a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace. Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen both missed the game through injury, but a late Heung-min Son winner put the north Londoners into third, level on points with Manchester United, and eight behind Manchester City.
Fast-forward 28 days, and Tottenham are now as close in terms of points to United as they are to Everton, who have battled relegation, made a mess of replacing their manager, and finally settled on a boss who was not their first choice.
That defeat of Palace remains Tottenham’s most recent Premier League win, their only success in the last six games. A draw away at Watford is by no means disastrous – Arsenal lost here last month and Liverpool drew in August – but this does little to appease growing doubts.
“Always the responsibility is mine,” said Mauricio Pochettino in midweek. “Not because I want to protect the players or I want to be the victim. But because always [there] is one person who needs to analyse and accept and try afterwards to be better for the team, to perform better and win. That is the objective.”
No sooner does the manager plug one hole than another emerges, gushing water into a Tottenham ship that is struggling to keep afloat in the race to finish in the top four. Liverpool are now four points ahead of a side who dismantled them in October, and at least one of United or Arsenal will extend their gap to the north Londoners later on Saturday. A point against Watford lifts them above Burnley in the table on goal difference, but that is little to celebrate in the first week of December. The gap to the top is widening with each passing game.
Pochettino kept the faith with a four-man defence he tested against Leicester, deciding that conceding two goals of supreme individual quality was not enough to force a change in systems. Thirteen minutes in, Christian Kabasele punished a backline struggling badly without Toby Alderweireld, and Tottenham were already chasing their own tails.
A three-pronged attack of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen can normally be relied upon to embark on a rescue mission, but that triumvirate looks increasingly in need of back-up. Eriksen assisted Son’s equaliser but he, Kane and Alli created just once chance each, and had a combined three shots. Watford rarely looked troubled, and Spurs have now scored just five goals in the last five games in which that trio has started.
Alli in particular looks shorn of his talents and previously unerring belief. The last game the 21-year-old did not start despite being fit and available was in December 2015. He is sorely in need of a rest.
Not that many of his teammates are being rotated. Tottenham made just three changes to a starting line-up that looks bereft of confidence, and were static and predictable in both defence and attack. Pochettino has now made 74 changes to his starting line-ups this season; Liverpool, by comparison, have made 89, and it is no surprise that their forwards in particular look fresh and are firing.
One proud Tottenham record was maintained on Saturday. Erik Lamela, Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks predictably struggled to instigate a reaction from the bench, meaning that Pochettino has now made 67 substitutions in all competitions this season, resulting in a measly return of one goal and one assist.
Each ingredient combines to create a troublesome dish for Pochettino, and the crisis of confidence his players are currently suffering is only compounding the myriad issues.
Pochettino has dealt with questions over his tactics, his lack of squad rotation, his substitutions and his literary ambitions this season. The questions are mounting, and the answers are nowhere to be found.