Ken Early: Are Spurs the best in England? They are certainly not the luckiest
Being praised will be no consolation to Tottenham if they keep missing out on trophies
The last time Spurs had a big prize ripped from their hands by Chelsea, they couldn’t take it. When Eden Hazard’s equaliser looked like it would send the title to Leicester City, Spurs lost their heads in the style of a beaten Copa Libertadores finalist. Their indiscipline cost them a record nine yellow cards, and a six-match ban for Mousa Dembele, who succumbed to the general madness and gouged Diego Costa’s eyes.
A year on we can say that Spurs at least are learning how to handle these soul-crushing defeats with more dignity. Considering the sickening nature of the defeat he had just experienced, Mauricio Pochettino sounded like he was taking it surprisingly well.
“If you play as you did today you cannot be worried, because I think you will give your best. Football today doesn’t pay what we deserve.”
Away from the cameras Pochettino must be worrying that his team might never get what they deserve. On Saturday, they proved that they are a better team than Chelsea. Dembele and Victor Wanyama dominated N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic in midfield. Harry Kane and Dele Alli scored brilliant goals. And yet in the end Spurs had been beaten, with four goals conceded, by the side who will probably also beat them to the league title.
Spurs are the best team in the league, just as they were the best team last season, when they finished third. People say the table never lies, but they are always people who don’t understand the concept of sample size.
When you play only 38 games, luck has a huge influence over where you finish in the table. This will be of no consolation to these Spurs players if they keep missing out on the major trophies. No future folklore will honour the great trophyless Spurs side of the late 2010s, “The Unlucky Ones”.
Pochettino only used the word “luck” one time in his post-match press conference, remarking that it was unlucky that Tottenham had conceded a goal from the only corner they faced, while failing to score from any of the 11 corners they won themselves. Instead, the word he chose to sum up the difference between the sides was “clinical”. Chelsea were clinical, Spurs were not.
One of the things that makes Pochettino a good manager is that he acts as though luck does not exist. He prefers to concentrate on the things he can control and he seeks to convince his players that their destiny is entirely in their own hands. Earlier in the week, he had been talking about how exciting it was to be at Tottenham, embarked as they were on a great project of expansion and evolution.
“Tottenham is not building now in an artificial way. It is not about putting in money, money, money, money and build a fantastic stadium and fantastic team. Tottenham is very genuine, and it is a very natural process, and it is so exciting because it is unique in the world.”
Pochettino was making it sound as though sustained success would follow for Tottenham like a natural process, as a shoot springs up from a seed. Life isn’t really like that. Destiny hinges on random details.
Chelsea know this better than anyone. Someone of Dele Alli’s age cannot remember a time when Chelsea were not the dominant team in London. Yet fourteen years ago they were on the verge of bankruptcy, in danger of plunging down through the divisions like Leeds. A few miles away, Arsenal were planning a move to a huge new stadium that would permanently seal their status as London’s top club.
Then Roman Abramovich noticed Stamford Bridge as he looked down from a passing helicopter and decided to buy the club. Chelsea had done nothing to deserve their good luck other than be situated close to Knightsbridge and Belgravia, the preferred neighbourhoods for rich Russians in London. Arsenal’s grand ambition had been thwarted by nothing more than the inscrutable whim of an oligarch.
Spurs have nearly succeeded in putting together some great teams over the last 10 years, but the problem has always been that they cannot convince their best players to stay: Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Dimitar Berbatov, Robbie Keane and Michael Carrick all left for bigger clubs.
The new 61,000-seater stadium will help to convince Spurs players that they already are at a big club, but the moving process has already been complicated by random twists of fate. Explaining why the expected outlay on the stadium had doubled from £400 million to £800 million, the executive director Donna Cullen revealed that the depreciation of sterling after Brexit had added 20 per cent to certain aspects of the cost. Nothing ever goes as planned.
José Mourinho has remarked a couple of times this season that it’s more difficult these days to manage a club like Manchester United, because the relative financial gap between them and the middling clubs in the division is shrinking due to booming TV revenues. In the past, Mourinho said, United would plunder a team like Tottenham for their best players, gaining strength while weakening a potential rival.
That may well be harder to do, but for now, managers of predatory big clubs who want to tempt away Spurs’ best players still have one trump card. They can tell players like Kane and Alli that if they stay at Spurs, they will never win anything. There is only one thing Tottenham can do to change that, but first they’ll need luck to go their way.