While the 3-1 win over Real Madrid at Wembley will live longer in the memory, the 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu a fortnight prior felt more significant for Tottenham. Not only did it announce them as genuinely competitive on the European stage, but it also bucked a trend of disappointing results against high-quality opposition on the road.
It could and probably should have been a turning point, culling a fatal flaw that has undoubtedly cost them in consecutive Premier League title pushes.
But a 2-0 defeat in this season’s Emirates edition of the north London derby quashed any murmurs of Mauricio Pochettino arresting perhaps the only weak link he’s failed to find a solution to this season.
Tottenham’s record away from home against the big six under the Argentine now stands at just one win and nine points gained from 17 attempts, failing to record a single clean sheet or score more than two goals in a game during that time. The trend has gone on far too long to be swept under the rug or labelled a mere statistical coincidence; Spurs simply fail to deliver on away occasions that can separate title winners from also-rans.
Inevitably because of a tradition of ‘Spursing things up’, the mentality of the players has come into question. It’s certainly true that Arsenal appeared far more focused and energised than the visitors on Saturday, despite Spurs entering the 12.30pm kickoff in better form and a better place in the Premier League table.
Likewise, there’s a clear pattern of certain key players – most specifically Christian Eriksen – struggling to produce their best form in the big games. In some senses, that’s beyond Pochettino’s control. Jamie Redknapp, after the 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford earlier this season, claimed Tottenham ‘don’t have the personality’ to consistently take away points off their rivals.
But the statistics speak for themselves and during those 17 games, Pochettino has used 38 different players in five different formations, ranging from a traditional 4-4-2 to a quirky and modern 3-4-3, yet the results have rarely changed.
In fact, Tottenham appear to be getting worse despite the quality of the team and depth of the squad unquestionably improving; after taking six away points off big six rivals during the 2015/16 season, the Lilywhites have accumulated just two in the seven games since, failing to score on more than half of those occasions. Perhaps most tellingly of how the situation is further regressing, Saturday represented the first time Arsene Wenger has beaten Pochettino in the Premier League.
Accordingly, it’s hard to look past Pochettino’s role. It would be for any manager after succumbing to defeat at the hands of a rival, but he’s been the unavoidable constant throughout those three-and-a-half seasons. And not for the first time, his team selection on Saturday left an emotion that lays somewhere between underwhelmed and bemused.
Pretty much every pundit can tell you how to beat Arsenal, such is the predictability of Arsene Wenger’s side, and Sir Alex Ferguson even wrote a whole chapter on it in his Autobiography; suffocate and bog down the midfield, before hitting them for pace in wide areas on the break.
The three most dynamic players available to Pochettino, however, were all left out of the starting XI. Kieran Trippier started over the athletic Serge Aurier, speedster Heung-min Son was dropped to the bench and the overlapping, ever-penetrative Danny Rose was excluded from the squad entirely in favour of Ben Davies. Tottenham lacked the speed, power and energy to overturn Wenger’s side in the manner we’ve seen so frequently from Arsenal’s closest rivals (and even clubs much lower down the table) throughout the years.
Of course, there are some caveats to consider. Tottenham were without arguably their two most important defensive players in Toby Alderweireld and Victor Wanyama, who add height, strength and organisation to the backbone of the team.
Likewise, Arsenal have a perfect record at the Emirates Stadium this season and perhaps most excusing of all, local derbies are always somewhat of a leveller -they often boil down to simply who performs better on the day. On top of that, financially speaking, Tottenham are the least well-endowed in the big six; theoretically then, they should have the mini-division’s worst record in what are the hardest domestic fixtures of the season.
But what’s perhaps most disappointing is how predictable Tottenham were on Saturday, amid a season which has been defined by Pochettino’s ability to add variety to his side’s armoury. The 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu provides the perfect example; the 5-3-2 system with a technical midfield and Fernando Llorente joining Kane up top completely caught Real Madrid off-guard, counteracted the European champions’ diamond midfield and created the space on the break that Tottenham, but most particularly Kane, have proved so devastating in this season. It was a similar case when Real Madrid came to Wembley, and even Pochettino’s Old Trafford line-up sprung a few surprises.
Pochettino’s team selection and tactics on Saturday, however, lacked that same level of imagination. There were no systematic ploys to catch Arsenal out, no risky selections to get Tottenham’s most dangerous players on the pitch, no new element to Spurs’ forward play. Trippier and Davies starting on either flank highlighted how overly safe the whole approach was.
During a season which has already seen Pochettino use six formations and consistently win games without dominating the ball, that’s an uncharacteristic mistake. In the context of the last three-and-a-half seasons though, it neatly falls into a narrative of failing to deliver against the big six on the road.
The bad news for Tottenham is that they have less than a month to arrest those issues before travelling to the Etihad Stadium for what will be their toughest away test of the season. The good news, on the other hand, is that Pochettino has 17 games, one of which includes a win over Manchester City, to learn from.