After impressing in an FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea at the weekend, Tottenham seem to have shown the world that they are capable of challenging repeatedly at the very top of the English footballing pyramid, yet at the very same time proved their Wembley curse is still alive and kicking.
The next day, another impressive young side, Monaco, dealt with the pressure to see off a tricky fixture away to Lyon and keep themselves right in the box seat of the Ligue 1 title race.
At a glance, these are two very similar football teams right now. Both are filled with young players who form a nucleus of talent and who will become some of the sport’s biggest stars over the course of the next decade. Both have young and hungry managers whose philosophies revolve around combining high intensity pressing with a modern, vibrant attack and width coming from full-backs. Both are also taking on the moneyed elite in this year’s title race, looking to break into Europe’s big time with youth development and a solid strategy rather than financial dominance.
And yet there is one subtle difference which may just make the difference later in the season, at the crucial moments when trophies are lifted and medals are won.
At Parc OL on Sunday night, Monaco won 2-1 to go back level on points with PSG at the top of the table; ahead on goal difference but with a game in hand, their first title since 2000 is more than just a possibility. It’s in their own hands.
They didn’t have it all their own way, though. After two goals late in the first half from Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe, Leonardo Jardim’s side looked out of sight: they led 2-0 at half-time, having scored as many goals as Lyon had attempted shots. The second half was a different story as Lucas Tousart pulled on back for the hosts and almost equalised with a late header. It was a nervy ending for the league leaders.
But despite their youthful team, what Monaco had on the bench was a man who has vast experience at the top level of the game. With Lyon pushing for an equaliser, and with just three minutes left on the clock, Jardim called for Joao Moutinho, a man who has played in two Europa League / UEFA Cup finals, has won three league titles and three Portuguese cups and a European Championships. Portugal’s Liga Nos may not be the most glamourous league in Europe, but the experience of getting over the line is vital, especially to a team of young players who are still raw at such a level.
They may still have seen the game through without him, of course. But his presence was a calming one.
On Saturday, Tottenham could have done with Moutinho’s experience. The two situations at the weekend were very different, of course. Spurs were always chasing the game and didn’t throw away the lead. They were the better side and probably should have won, but few would argue they bottled it, they were simply beaten by a team of hardened winners.
But maybe with an older head, Spurs would be, too. And that’s probably the next step.
They say the first trophy is the most important one in the development of a squad. But when your squad is as young as Tottenham’s is, that takes on extra significance. The first one for this team will be the first for so many of the squad, though it’s not like there’s no-one in the squad with experience of winning a trophy, even if triumph in England or in Europe would be a step up for all.
Hugo Lloris won a French Cup with Lyon, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen won league titles with Ajax, while Victor Wanyama has winners’ medals in Scotland with Celtic. But only Alderweireld has won a league title in one of Europe’s top leagues, winning La Liga with Atletico Madrid in 2014, though he only played 12 times in the league that season before being loaned to Southampton the following year.
There’s no one who has been around quite as much as Moutinho has at Monaco, even if Spurs can count some more experienced players.
To take the next step, Spurs should look to add an older head to the team. Not necessarily as a starter, and not to take the place of any of the young players coming through, but as someone who can help lead at the most crucial times of the season.
Monaco’s strategy is one that Spurs are espousing, too. It’s even harder to do in England than it is to do in France, though success in the Champions League is something that has eluded Spurs, partly thanks to the brilliance of the Principality club. But the know-how of Moutinho and even Radamel Falcao is priceless, and might well be the reason Monaco win a trophy this season and Spurs don’t.