St. James’ Park will be a difficult venue for visitors in the Premier League this season, but Tottenham’s 2-0 win over Newcastle on Tyneside last weekend, catalysed by Jonjo Shelvey’s red card early in the second half, paved over concerning cracks in Mauricio Pochettino’s squad that will become more evident and more damaging the longer they go unaddressed.
That may seem a relatively pessimistic analysis of what was, on paper, a strong start to the season from Tottenham. But the real concern from Pochettino’s first starting XI of the campaign was the number of square pegs in round holes and unconvincing options the Tottenham gaffer was forced to place his trust in, especially for an away trip on the opening day of the season against a relatively unknown quantity.
Spurs’ entire right side consisted of a right-back making his Premier League debut in Kyle Walker-Peters, a right central midfielder shaped like a defender in Eric Dier and a right winger in Moussa Sissoko whose performances for Tottenham thus far – including against his former club on Sunday – have ranged from anonymous to abysmal.
That may have been enough to see off a newly-promoted team still finding their feet in the Premier League and going a man down – Walker-Peters was in fact issued the Man of the Match award – but other teams and other circumstances won’t be quite so forgiving. In fact, before Shelvey’s sending off, momentum in the match was starting to shift towards Newcastle, as the pressure of expectation began to weigh on Tottenham shoulders. The game could have finished very differently.
In many ways, that epitomises the difference between Tottenham and the rest of the top six as things currently stand; their first-choice starting XI is as good as any other in the Premier League, but one or two absences weaken it significantly.
Fortune favoured Spurs on Tyneside but the decision to issue Walker-Peters his debut away from home could have backfired spectacularly and rather tellingly of a performance that was cut short to just 67 minutes, Sissoko finished up with the second-least touches of any Tottenham starter, just 40. If Pochettino were to select the exact same line-up for Chelsea’s visit to Wembley next weekend, it’s unlikely Tottenham would come away with a similarly impressive result.
At the same time, although the uncommon sight of Victor Wanyama strengthened Pochettino’ss bench by its usual standards, it’s those players who didn’t come on that really tell the story of the Lilywhites’ limited depth – Kevin Wimmer, Vincent Janssen, Michel Vorm and Cameron Carter-Vickers. Four players who, with the greatest respect, would struggle to make the benches of any other top six club let alone the starting XI. If injuries force Pochettino to rely on these players later in the season, Spurs’ results will almost certainly take a downturn.
Of course, this assessment is nothing new; Tottenham fans have known for a while that the quality of the bench often lets them down and accordingly, the quality of the squad over the course of a full season. That’s arguably why Tottenham have fallen just short of the Premier League title from their last two attempts; the absence of diverse options to change games and the strength in depth to keep a title bid going from the first game to the last whilst battling on three other fronts.
Tottenham’s status as the only Premier League club yet to sign a single player this summer has been a relentless subject of debate amongst the fans, and clearly needs to come to an end if the north Londoners are to address the deficiencies of the wider squad to improve upon the momentum they’ve built over the last two seasons.
But the good news is that, generally speaking, Tottenham have now entered the optimum time in the transfer window to sign players for the squad rather than the first team. Players become more open to the idea of signing for clubs where they’ll have to fight for their place as other opportunities dry up, while the chain reactions from the huge deals involving the big names are in full effect, freeing up lesser members of the top squads around Europe.
Furthermore, this is where Daniel Levy, for better or worse, comes into his own; some of Tottenham’s best-ever signings have been acquired for modest prices in the closing stages of the summer transfer window. The underlying concern, however, is how consistent that strategy has proved to be – Sissoko was a deadline day arrival too, and a particularly costly one – and the number of signings Spurs still need. Even if it’s for the bench, Pochettino requires three or four to really bring this Tottenham side to another level.