Wednesday night produced one of the famous European results for Tottenham. The greater relevance is that, with Borussia Dortmund’s 1-1 draw with APOEL Nicosia, they are now through to the knockout stages of the Champions League, but this was timely result for other reasons.
Four days on from defeat at Old Trafford, one after which Mauricio Pochettino and his players had taken heavy criticism, Spurs are the darlings again. Saturday was a moment to dwell upon their limitations, Wednesday a night to wonder what they might become.
Fine, but there has to be a point at which Spurs are enjoyed for what they are. There’s a time to be forward-thinking, to worry about which players can be retained, and what everything means, but – with this team in particular – that seems to be a default and permanent state.
The loss to Manchester United was dispiriting. A generally solid defensive performance was undermined by a late lapse in concentration. Moments before Anthony Martial accelerated beyond Eric Dier, Dele Alli had botched his own chance to win the game and so, again, a top-six encounter away from home was a tale of what might have been.
It was a disappointing loss, but hardly a terminal one. Some games are instructive about the future, others are just settled by the bounce of the ball or a misjudgement. Factored into that context, of course, is the financial gulf which exists between the two teams. Tottenham and Manchester United are not two sides competing on an even playing field and they haven’t been for decades.
Yet, all of a sudden they are one in the same. Two sides competing for the same prize and in a world which hasn’t been adjusted for reality. Aspirant teams shouldn’t cling to asterisks about wage spends and transfer budgets for eternity but surely here, in this case, it should have been acknowledged that Tottenham remain in a growth phase, are new to playing in these Sky Montage games, and that they are still entitled to brush off defeat and claim it as part of the learning curve.
It was the determination to carve conclusions in stone which was grating: what did that game – in isolation – say about Pochettino and the months and years ahead? Measured against United, with their £60m backup forward and blank cheque budget, what is this Tottenham team?
Really, must it always be this way?
Spurs shouldn’t live in a consequence-free world and certainly receive enough praise to soften periodic criticism, but rarely before has a team existed in such a perpetual state of assessment. It’s strange because it’s so at odds with what we know to be true. Throughout its lifetime, the Premier League has always been dominated by a small cabal of teams. It’s stands to reason, then, that infiltrating that group – defeating its larger squads, its economies and many other advantages – takes time. It’s a process.
Pochettino has led his players to Stage One. They have finished in the Champions League places for two seasons in a row and have started to strike the right balance between European ambition and remaining competitive domestically. Given what has come before and who has had to be displaced for it to happen, that’s a remarkable achievement. The requirement from outside, though, seems to be that Tottenham should either complete a quantum leap in the game or be considered an afterthought. Becoming part of the rotation of sides who compete for the league title isn’t sufficient and their recent vertical movement can only be validated by a league championship.
“This is yet another Tottenham team that is in danger of being remembered for being all fur coat and no knickers”
That was The Sun’s assessment from Old Trafford and it was rather typical in its melodrama. Pochettino, his players, and his work are having their legacy readjusted every ninety minutes. Absurdly, losing away from home to high-powered teams is now not only disappointing, but also portrayed as a descriptive failure.
It’s never worked like this before. Over the last decade, there have been dozens of encounters between title hopefuls every season. Very few of them, though, ended with an autopsy. Managerial job security, the performances of certain players, and the tactics employed have always been discussed thoroughly, but never before with such intent to find fatal flaws; the appetite to disprove Tottenham’s authenticity is apparently insatiable.
The shame of that is in potentially missing the present: to Wednesday night, when Pochettino’s players shimmered under the Wembley lights. The Spanish press will focus on Real Madrid’s failings and neutrals will, quite correctly, claim that Ronaldo and Friends were strangely off colour, but that hardly seems the point. Back-to-back European Champions being humbled at the home of English football should always be a big deal, particularly when the side giving the lesson is stacked with British talent. It was something to be enjoyed, even if only because it was different. Madrid weren’t beaten by a team greased with oil money and financially doped beyond its identity, but a side built from relatively modest parts. Relatively modest homegrown parts. Draw a portrait of that first goal, for instance, and capture Kieran Tripper’s cross, Harry Winks’s cutting diagonal, and Alli’s movement, and it would be rich enough to hang in the National Gallery. The rise of a team is intoxicating and its moments are precious, but that’s a joy which is lost if eyes always drift reflexively towards the horizon?
Once upon a time, a team was only ever as good as its last result. Now, it’s only ever as good as its determined to be at a loose, non-specific point in the future.
“They’ve now got to show that they can win a game like that and four days later go and beat Crystal Palace.”
The words of a BT Sport presenter, an hour after full-time at Wembley. An hour after one of the most notable performances in a club’s history and a career highpoint for a raft of a young players.There’s a point there somewhere and – yes – backing up good results is an integral part of being successful. But it’s also rather indicative of a particularly joyless phenomenon: week-to-week, the pockets of enthusiasm for this Tottenham side continue to be ruthlessly policed and the supporters’ pride pricked at every opportunity.