Those of us of a certain age are fond of rolling back the years to the glory glory nights, where memories are rich and warm, where the lights were bright but none shone as brilliantly as the stars in all white. Against Bayer Leverkusen, Spurs went back in time to a reality most of us prefer to shift out of the way to gather dust in a dark corner, the cupboard under the stairs of the mind. Instead of rising to the challenge, Spurs sank without trace.
Spurs stunk the place out. The stench lingered longer than the queue for Wembley Park. Back to the bad old days. No purpose or ambition, no passing or basic team play. No idea.
I really thought we had got past this, that even under par we could make a good fist of things. The combination of the inexact science of the NHS appointments system and southeast London’s totally inadequate transport system meant that I missed this one. For once I was almost glad I was spared the gloom of the Wembley queue. The second half was utterly atrocious.
A first half hour high in effort and low on opportunities was punctuated by absurd methods of giving the ball away when under pressure, Lloris’s fluffed passes and Eriksen’s crossfield pass being the two most notable examples. We could not keep the ball for any length of time but neither side were dominant. The Germans looked more dangerous with runners sliding into the channels, something we conspicuously failed to achieve at the other end. When we did so on a rare break, Eriksen ignored four other options in favour of a shot from distance.
I can’t recall a proper chance in this period. Later, Spurs roused themselves briefly around the hour mark with Walker leaving four men in his wake then shooting wide from an angle, while a cross drifted past Janssen. Otherwise we were too narrow, missing Rose on the left and Sissoko keen to drift inside without linking effectively with Walker to the outside. Son was peripheral and when he had the ball he returned to his old habit of running well then kicking it straight at the defender in front of him.
Everyone’s decision-taking was poor. This meant we had no possession and promising moves quickly ended with a misplaced pass, a tackle because we were hesitant or simply trying to pass or run the ball into a space where none existed. Sissoko and Dele were especially guilty of this. I’m talking basic stuff here, 10 yard passes became worthy of applause by the end such was their rarity.
This rather implies we had some sort of plan. I’m sure we did but it was not evident to anyone in the English record crowd for a club game of over 85,000. Pochettino fumed on the touchline. The defence, our rock this season, was stupefyingly awful. Leverkusen could easily have scored four or five. In the first half Vertonghen blocked and Lloris saved when a score seemed certain. There were several other great opportunities in the second.
How can players fall apart in this way? Kyle Walker: a case study. He’s been outstanding this season, without reservation, going forward and, given his previous positional frailties, remarkable at the back. At least some good came from England’s Euro 16 debacle – Walker had matured. Last night it was as if he’d been exposed to that memory eraser from Men in Black. Failed clearances, caught on the ball near the box, hope rather than judgement conditioning his response to a ball on the byline. He lost it and the Germans somehow contrived not to score. His expression turned from the determined professional we’ve seen all season to the bewildered nervous schoolboy of times past. What was he thinking?
I could go on but it makes me sad. Sad and disappointed, not angry. What a waste of the opportunity. Spurs fans thrilled by the availability of cheap seats and CL football, sent home desperately disenchanted.
The team have let themselves down and left fans frustrated once more. We earned a place in the CL: I wanted Spurs to show Europe how good we could be. That’s all – get out of the group and see what happens, we weren’t going to win it. Probably. Not a lot to ask. Hardly unrealistic expectations, yet unfulfilled.
The Wembley effect: compare and contrast. Playing at Wembley may inspire opponents – it can inspire Tottenham too, but doesn’t. The pitch is bigger than White Hart Lane and again that’s something we could turn to our advantage. Instead, we seem overawed and frankly out of our depth. The CL is one thing, an entire season like this quite another. If we can’t play at Wembley, pointless entering the cups then.
Any focus on changing circumstances conceals the sobering reality of continuing issues that have been bubbling under since the season began. This is still a developing squad without concerted experience playing as a team at Champions League level. Teams who do well in this competition depend on experience. Summer purchases by and large were made with an eye to the future rather than instant gratification. Wanyama has taken a big step up while Janssen may be an international but is only part way through his second season playing in top-flight football. It shows.
Without Kane and Alderweireld, the spine of the team was weakened and we chose not to buy one or two seasoned professionals who could have conveyed their experience to the others. Last night there were no leaders on the pitch. I don’t mean fist pumping gobshites but men able to assert themselves when things are going wrong. This applies as much in respect of their influence on their team-mates as over the opposition.
The squad is just not deep enough. Harry Winks is a fine prospect but with all respect to him, we should not have to bring on a player yet to start in the Premier League to add creativity to a side chasing the game.
Also, this may be dull and obvious but we have several players not at the top of their game. On Saturday we ground to a halt in the last fifteen minutes, devoid of ideas, players shrugging their shoulders at each other, bickering, something I’ve not seen for many, many matches. Eriksen is busy but remains an actor who knows the words but is searching for the plot. Janssen is up for the battle but loses the ball too often, Dembele is hesitantly groping for fitness and form, while Dele’s habit of leaving a touch to the last second is getting him into trouble more often than it creates opportunities. Sissoko has not had a proper pre-season and clearly has yet to grasp what is expected of him. All players need time to settle so I will leave it there, although long-term issues are surfacing about where and how he fits the way we play. We embraced Son and his goals but perhaps our enthusiasm understandably obscured these underlying problems. The City performance, as good as anything I’ve seen in decades, was heralded as a sign of a step-change in progress. Now it looks like the outlier, a hint of what might be but last night showed how much there is still to do.