Tottenham’s potential must be transformed into something concrete
Mauricio Pochettino has now won just one of 18 away games against other top-six sides
Arsenal’s Shkodran Mustafi celebrates scoring his team’s first goal against Tottenham on Saturday. Phoograph: Reuters
For all that is positive about Tottenham, for all that they are about to move into an exciting new stadium and are blessed with a crop of highly promising young players, their away record against big sides has become an issue.
It’s a problem that predates Mauricio Pochettino – Spurs have now won just four of their last 87 away games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool – but one that he seems a long way from resolving: although this was his first league defeat to Arsenal, he has now won just one of 18 away games against other top-six sides.
There were mitigating factors here – the fact that neither Harry Kane nor Mousa Dembélé looked fully fit and that Harry Winks wasn’t able to start, plus marginal refereeing calls on both Arsenal goals – but there always are. Pochettino, as he had to, mounted a defence, pointing out that other top-six sides also have problems in away games against the elite, but this was a game settled in the final half hour of the first half as Arsenal produced one of the displays of ferocity and discipline of which they are infrequently capable and which they have recently reserved for big games in the FA Cup.
When they can press as well as this, you wonder why they don’t do it all the time.
Once they had gone 2-0 down, Tottenham were forced on the offensive and could easily have leaked more on the counter as the pace of Alexis Sánchez and Alexandre Lacazette was unleashed. And for all Pochettino claimed his side had been on top until they were undone by the referee Mike Dean, that was not how it seemed. The focus on refereeing decisions often ignores the fact that they, just as much as defensive errors, are often the result of pressure.
Tottenham’s problems could be traced to the back of midfield, where the pairing of Dembélé and Moussa Sissoko offered muscularity but not control. They were an oddly immobile pairing, both of body and mind, clearly rattled by the pressure they found themselves under. Again and again in the first half, Arsenal players found themselves with time to measure passes through the Spurs defence, leading to the Héctor Bellerín cross that Lacazette just failed to touch in and then the second goal.
It’s hardly a secret that Sissoko is a player who tends not to relish the rough and tumble of a derby. This was the first game he had started for Tottenham against Arsenal, but in 14 previous starts in derbies, seven for Newcastle against Sunderland and seven for Toulouse against Bordeaux, he had a record of won one, drew one, lost 12.
Here he contributed to Tottenham seeming oddly short in an area in which Arsenal are often fallible, in central areas just in front of the back-line. Statistics don’t really explain the issue which is largely positional, but for Sissoko to have won the ball back only once in the game, whether by tackle or interception, is very low for a holding midfielder when his side were under such pressure.
The introduction of Winks just after the hour made a significant improvement: he imposed himself far more than either of the other holding players, to the extent that he had 48 touches in his 29 minutes in the pitch, as opposed to Dembélé’s 63 in 61 and Sissoko’s 67 in the whole game.
That lack of a platform – and perhaps Kane’s lack of effectiveness – had a knock-on effect further up the pitch. Perhaps Dele Alli, who had also missed the England friendlies with injury, wasn’t at his sharpest, but he was a largely peripheral figure anyway until being booked for a late lunge on Granit Xhaka. Neither he nor Christian Eriksen were able to muster a passing accuracy above 72 per cent. The lop-sided triangle in midfield, whether in a 4-2-3-1-cum-4-3-3 or a 3-4-2-1-cum-3-5-2, has been one of Spurs’ great strengths; here, against all expectation, it failed to function.
Perhaps it is just a learning experience. Perhaps a young side feeling its way to the next level will always have setbacks like this. The prognosis for Tottenham remains generally positive. But, as Arsenal could tell them, sooner or later there’s a need for potential to be transformed into something concrete otherwise it withers away.
In this game, perhaps, Pochettino was right. Perhaps Tottenham were largely unfortunate, both with decisions and issues of fitness. But the wider pattern is clear: Spurs’s away record against top-six sides is dismal and until it improves the frustration will endure. Already any thought of a serious league challenge this season has all but gone. Their three remaining league games against other members of the big six, the next of them at Manchester City in a month, will reveal a lot about how sustainable their progress really is.