Last season, Tottenham Hotspur’s failures in Europe didn’t define their season. But they pointed out a worrying trend that found its way onto everyone’s lips. And that trend threatens to define next season.
Spurs’ first two home games in the Champions League group stage turned into massive disappointments as they lost both times, first to Monaco and then to Bayer Leverkusen. That left them in a position where even a 3-1 victory over CSKA Moscow in the final home game couldn’t stop them from dropping into the Europa League. Wembley, it seemed had become an issue. Since winning the 2008 League Cup final, they have won just once in nine attempts at the national stadium – that fairly meaningless victory in the final group game.
Though not totally meaningless. It did guarantee their place in the Europa League round of 32, where they lost to Gent. As if to amplify their Wembley hoodoo, their only victory at the ground in the 2010s came to drag them back into their other modern-day jinx, Europe’s second tier competition.
Only twice in the past 11 years have they not played in that particular competition – 2009/10 when they played no European football at all, and a memorable season in 2010/11 when they reached the quarter-final, eventually losing out to Real Madrid.
One thing has been made clear since Mauricio Pochettino took over in 2014, though: this isn’t the same Tottenham Hotspur. And we’re only just starting to understand that, it seems.
After coming third the season before last – losing out to Leicester City and collapsing when the title was already out of reach – and then second to Chelsea, it’s obvious that Pochettino’s side is a different beast to what Spurs usually are. Harry Kane is not a one-season wonder. Dele Alli could become one of England’s all-time greats. And the best thing about it all is that this side, given its youth, will only get better next season. We shouldn’t, then, repeat the mistake of this time last year in predicting Tottenham to finish outside of the top four at the very least.
But Wembley is hard to overlook. A stadium that just seems to have created a mental block in Tottenham’s players will be their home not just for some European games, but for an entire season. And yet, Spurs don’t seem to be taking that issue particularly seriously.
A pre-season tour to the USA will see the side play three matches in late July against big-name opposition in money-spinning friendlies. Only Tottenham’s three International Champions Cup fixtures against Paris Saint-Germain, Roma and Manchester City have been announced so far, and so other fixtures will certainly be added, but it remains to be seen how many they’ll schedule at Wembley stadium.
That could be a bigger problem than it sounds.
Spurs, thanks to last season, may be reasonably well-prepared for life at their new, temporary home, but they’d still benefit from playing some games there in pre-season. They will also, most likely, have to come before the American trip, too, as when they come back, they’ll only have two weeks before the season starts – and only one week until what we are obliged to call the season’s ‘curtain-raiser’, the Community Shield.
What that means in practice is hard to ignore. Last year, West Ham United played only one pre-season fixture at the London Stadium before the start of the season, when they faced Juventus in a friendly. Spurs could be making a similar mistake this time.
But the real killer is the fact that Chelsea, Tottenham’s first opponents at home, will play in the Community Shield against Arsenal a week before the season starts. Ironically, that means the biggest pre-season game at Wembley will be played by Chelsea, not Spurs.
It’s entirely up for debate as to whether than means very much at all. In the end, we’re talking about professional footballers who are paid huge wages to put outside pressures out of their minds. But we’ve also seen stranger things happen in sport. And once you get mentally hung up on something like that, it’s hard to fix it, especially when everyone starts to talk about it.
Given the north Londoners already appear to have a Wembley jinx, a defeat to Chelsea in the first home game will surely raise the pressure a few notches and prolong the conversation. Wembley failures last season were talked about at length, but they didn’t detract from what was a brilliant season. But they might well define next season.