With Chelsea now serving for three Championship points against relatively timid opposition in West Brom, Watford and already-relegated Sunderland, the Premier League title is all-but mathematically out of Tottenham Hotspur’s reach.
And when the Blues finally clinch the win that puts them over the finishing line, an enquiry will be required at White Hart Lane. Although notions of bottle-jobbery and ‘Spursing it up’ have become much of a fallacy – there has been nothing weak-willed about Mauricio Pochettino’s side this season – the question remains as to how Tottenham have some so close but eventually missed out on the top-flight crown for two consecutive seasons. Coincidence perhaps, but there are some recurring trends.
In terms of momentum-swinging, symbolic moments in this season’s title chase, it’s not a Premier League fixture that stands out, rather Tottenham and Chelsea’s six-goal thriller at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final – the last time first and second place faced each other in any competition, just after the deficit had been reduced to four points by a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United.
Spurs pushed the Blues to extra time and looked the likeliest to progress to the final when Dele Alli netted to make it 2-2. But Eden Hazard and Diego Costa came on from the bench to change the match, and Chelsea’s quality in the final third soon told.
The 120 minutes drained the resources of both teams ahead of their home stretches in the top flight, but Antonio Conte unquestionably managed his better, sparing Hazard and Costa until the hour mark. Pochettino, on the other hand, went full throttle from the start and could only introduce a defender in Kyle Walker and forgotten man Georges-Kevin N’Koudou from the bench, neither of whom managed to alter the game.
Whereas the eventual Blues win kept their momentum going, it was a demoralising moment for the Lilywhites, one that must have lead to a realisation of how tired legs that had pumped up and down relentlessly all season truly were. Before that game, Spurs had blown away Swansea, Watford and Bournemouth, netting eleven goals in three games. Since, Pochettino’s side have scored just three in as many fixtures, losing their last outing to West Ham – a 1-0 defeat against rear-guard Hammers as Spurs ran out of steam and ideas, something that can be traced back to that gruelling two hours at Wembley.
Yet, looking at Tottenham’s season as a whole, the real damage was done much earlier in the campaign. All but two of Spurs’ eight draws this term came before mid-November, winning five and drawing six of their first eleven Premier League fixtures. Chelsea were already four points ahead at that point in the season, so Tottenham’s 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge later that month simply left them with too much to do. Rather tellingly, the difference between the two sides is still seven points – even if Spurs did manage to shorten it for a while.
But whether you think Tottenham lost the title race in a non-Premier League fixture at Wembley last month or back before their bid had even truly started in November, the most obvious underlying factor is the same – squad depth.
Whilst Conte has been privy to almost an embarrassment of riches in virtually every department this season – having a four-time Premier League winner in John Terry, a former Barcelona playmaker in Cesc Fabregas and last season’s Player of the Year in Willian to bring on from the bench is an incredible luxury – Pochettino’s had to make do with academy products and inexperienced signings struggling to perform.
That cost the White Hart Lane gaffer dearly at Wembley last month as a 22-year-old N’Koudou who has clocked up just 47 minutes of Premier League action this season and a first-and-foremost defender in Walker failed to change the dynamics of the game.
But it wasn’t enough to get his side through the hectic scheduling at the beginning of the season either; Spurs’ failure to turn draws into wins from September to November was unquestionably intertwined with their involvement in the Champions League’s Group Stages and to a lesser extent the EFL Cup. Resources were simply stretched too thin, and summer squad additions Moussa Sissoko, Vincent Janssen and N’Koudou didn’t have the effect they were purchased for – performing in the cup competitions to ease the burden on Tottenham’s key players.
That is something the north London club simply must address this summer if they’re to progress from the role of nearly-men. Even at full-strength, Tottenham’s bench is limited in terms of game-changers, weakening Pochettino’s hand in a division now seemingly hinging on the philosophies, tactical decisions and substitutions of the super-managers, and struggling to cope with the busy workload at the start of the season cost the Lilywhites in 2015/16 too.
The battle of Stamford Bridge and Eden Hazard’s late equaliser will be remembered as the title race’s defining moment but once again, Spurs started the season underwhelmingly – winning just six and drawing eight of their first 16. Pochettino needs a squad that can guarantee him a better start as he juggles the obligations of European football – another poor beginning to the season for the third time in a row is simply unacceptable – but can also provide him the options from the bench to change different types of games later in the campaign.
Currently, for example, Tottenham lack a player who can provide them with true pace and width in attack, like Willian, or a central midfielder who can unlock defences from deep, like Fabregas. They may seem unrealistic targets for the north Londoners but players of that level of quality and that level of experience are needed. The FA Cup semi-final was one such moment when Chelsea’s experience and game-intelligence truly showed and more than ability or fine football, those attributes have got the Blues almost over the line in the title race. Spurs need older heads to get them through difficult games and to add leadership to an especially young dressing room. That, however, will require breaking the club’s current wage structure.
Not that Pochettino can be completely exonerated of blame – the South American may be a popular manager, but he’s not infallible. Many of his substitutions this season have baffled, even if he’s been given limited options to work with, and some selection calls have spectacularly backfired – Heung-Min Son’s troubled display at wing-back in the FA Cup semi-final particularly coming to mind. Likewise, Spurs have used two formations frequently this season, 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3, but neither are a genuine Plan B, more Plan A and Plan A1, using different systems for essentially the same way of playing. He needs more tactical variety.
Although that once again stems back to actions in the transfer market, you have to wonder about the voices whispering into Pochettino’s ear. He’s a fantastic manager but still an incredibly young one, learning about the demands of challenges like Premier League title bids on the job, and began working with all of his immediate coaching staff prior to being appointed Spurs boss in summer 2014.
The concern is whether they’re well-placed to tell Pochettino when he’s wrong. Arsene Wenger lacks that voice at Arsenal and the club has started to regress. At Manchester United, on the other hand, Sir Alex Ferguson brought in new assistant managers with new ideas every three-to-five years. Maybe it’s time Pochettino brought in someone who can keep him on his toes and provide a different opinion.
There are issues on the horizon too, most notably Tottenham’s move to Wembley for next season – something that can’t simply be addressed with new signings or additions to the coaching staff. Since 2009, the Lilywhites have won just once at Wembley from eleven attempts, including three defeats there this season. Of course, that run is skewed by the fact so many games were finals or semi-finals, but it nonetheless makes very concerning reading considering Wembley will be Tottenham’s temporary home next season.
In terms of recreating the White Hart Lane atmosphere, Spurs’ options are limited but must be exhausted to make it feel like a home rather than a neutral venue. One thing more in the club’s control, however, is having pre-season there – six weeks to get used to the pitch, the dressing rooms, the cut of the grass and the acoustic dynamics of the ground. Practice makes perfect and although it may sound basic, Spurs need to practice winning at Wembley if they’re to turn their competitive record there around.
Some pretty huge obstacles for Tottenham to overcome this summer, then, ones that will put pressure on the club’s bank balance and force Daniel Levy and Pochettino to question some of their own fundamental beliefs. But if Tottenham have shown anything throughout the Argentine’s affluent tenure, it’s the resourcefulness and adaptability to continue to exceed expectations.
This time, however, it’s a little different – rather than being the resident dark horses, Tottenham will be expected to be a part of next season’s title race. That’s why addressing these issues in the summer and starting next season strongly is so vitally important.