Spurs must answer a testing question when Chelsea visit
Tottenham need to make up for a couple of home defeats against so-called big-six clubs
Tottenham’s Juan Foyth celebrates scoring the only goal of the game against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, London on November 10th. Photograph: Reuters
Win away games against the big six, they said. That’s the real test, they said. That’s what’s holding Tottenham back from taking that extra step and winning trophies, they said. So Tottenham started winning away games against big-six sides. After one win in 19 away games against the elite, they beat Chelsea 3-1 at Stamford Bridge in April and Manchester United 3-0 at Old Trafford in August.
The problem is that since then they have started losing against the big six at home: twice to City and once to Liverpool and, for good measure, to United at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals as well, on what was theoretically neutral ground. It’s as though they cannot be good both at home and away at the same time, the most frustrating weather-house in the world.
Approaching Saturday’s home game against Chelsea, that statistic becomes very relevant. Win, and Spurs will go above Chelsea into third and all will seem well. Lose, and the sense of a gulf between them and the top three – although it would be only four points – will seem vast, the season in effect reduced to a battle for fourth and the final Champions League qualifying slot.
It’s hard, frankly, to see a systemic reason for the reversal. Half a dozen games is a small sample size and, with the exception of the Cup semi-final, each was won by the side in the better form. And even in that defeat by United at Wembley, Spurs were the better side and had the lead before some deep magic kicked in and both sides reverted to historical type, United coming from behind and Spurs succumbing to Spursiness.
But that, perhaps, is the wider point. Spurs were thoroughly outplayed by Liverpool and City this season and that has cast the rest of their campaign in a gloomier light than their league position may suggest is deserved. But as Mauricio Pochettino has acknowledged, that position, this best Premier League start in terms of points won, is illusory. It’s to Tottenham’s credit they are finding ways to win but they are not playing well.
This is the world of modern football, in which nothing quite means what it would have meant even five years ago. United’s problems slightly dilute the issue but, even with their worst start to a season in almost 30 years, the big six, a third of the way through the season, have lost only three games to the other 14 teams. Take United out of the equation and the only defeat suffered by one of the top five to a non-big-six team was Tottenham’s at Watford (and even then, they led before being undone by their familiar failing of wastefulness at one end and sloppiness at the other).
It might not be quite as bad as other leagues in Europe (and, yes, Bayern have had a poor start in Germany and La Liga is unusually chaotic at the moment, but it would still be a major shock if any of the superclubs from those leagues missed out on Champions League qualification) but the Premier League has in effect become like a pub quiz that is too easy, so that everything comes down to a couple of slightly testing questions.
Knowing the capital of Denmark or who was the British prime minister at the end of the second world war does not cut it, and neither do wins against Crystal Palace or Cardiff. Consistency against mid-table teams and below is taken as standard; any slip has major consequences.
Saturday’s game is one of the questions that will make a difference. And for Tottenham, as ever, a match such as this one comes bound in existential anxiety. What if they do lose a third home game against a top side? What if that gap does open up? What if this extraordinary squad, assembled so cheaply, remunerated so comparatively poorly, begin to lose faith that glory lies just over the horizon? What if Pochettino, frustrated by delays to the stadium and the lack of funds for signings, is tempted by offers from elsewhere?
At the moment it feels the entire Tottenham project is predicated on nobody looking down, on pedalling desperately towards a distant prize. Their struggles in the Champions League must have sparked doubts. A third home defeat in three months to a big-six side would kindle them.
The suspicion has lurked for a while that this Tottenham side’s prime role will ultimately be to be sold off to fund a squad who will mount a title challenge in a few seasons’ time. If that coincides with City’s transition after the eventual departure of Pep Guardiola, so much the better.
Perhaps this Spurs could survive one difficult season. The stadium problems are an obvious drain, financially and emotionally, and a useful excuse. Perhaps everything really will be fine when they move into the new White Hart Lane. But Tottenham, no matter how ostensibly impressive their results this season, could do with a win and a performance on Saturday to soothe troubled souls.