Tottenham Hotspur are about to play their first game in their new stadium.
This is a moment over 10 years in the making, with the stadium having been announced way back in 2008. Construction began in 2015 and even though it was intended to be ready for the start of this season, delays have pushed it back until now, with Crystal Palace being the first opponents to play at the new venue.
It will be a momentous occasion but it comes as Spurs are having their shakiest period of the season so far. After spending just about half of the campaign on the periphery of the title race, Mauricio Pochettino’s men have really struggled of late. Since beating Borussia Dortmund 3-0 at Wembley, they have won just one of the subsequent six fixtures, and that was the return against Dortmund!
Ergo, they are winless in five Premier League games, losing four and drawing one to Arsenal. It has seen their comfortable hold on third place diminish to the point where they even surrendered the position to rivals Arsenal. Worse still, they are level on points with Manchester United and just one point ahead of sixth-placed Chelsea. They are now fully in the top four race.
So what is all this about? It’s just Spurs being Spursy, yeah? Typical bottlers, right?
Sure, there may be a mental issue at play here but it’s probably the fact that Spurs put a lot of emphasis on their Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund, so the matches around it suffered for that. Plus let’s be fair, they have played Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool during this run – so they’ve not exactly had it easy.
But to discern the biggest factor in Spurs’ run of poor form, you’ve simply got to look at this Tottenham XI:
Is that the side that played in any of their defeats? No. That’s the last-ever Spurs XI to take the field at White Hart Lane, way back on 14th May 2017. They won 2-1 against Manchester United that day to sign off from their old stadium in style, but look at the members of that XI. Every single player is not only still at Spurs, but with the exception of Victor Wanyama still firmly part of the first XI. And Wanyama’s downfall was precipitated by injury, which is also the only reason Eric Dier isn’t playing every week.
But the rest of that side? If they’re fit, they’re playing, with Ben Davies the only one whose place in the XI isn’t guaranteed. For a side competing for Champions League places and, in an ideal world, titles… that is staggering.
Obviously it’s good to build a side around core players who have been there forever. The best sides in the world do exactly that. Barcelona’s dynasty has had Leo Messi, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets running through the spine of it for a decade. Sergio Ramos and Marcelo have been at Real Madrid together since 2005. Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Gianluigi Buffon were at the heart of Juve’s defence together for what seemed like forever until the goalkeeper’s departure last summer.
Even domestically: Manchester City have had Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kompany with them since their first title-winning season in 2011/12. And before last summer Yaya Touré was also an ever-present.
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So if these top sides do it, what’s wrong with Spurs? Well, you’ll notice that these top sides, the best in the world, are retaining at most a handful of players. The most extreme case was probably Barcelona who for the four years of Pep Guardiola’s reign had basically the same XI. But that was Barcelona, they were the best team in the world, and even then the lack of true change is part of what brought their downfall in the 2011/12 season, the only time Guardiola failed to win La Liga. The fact that Barcelona then developed the idea of a ‘Gala XI’ around those players is part of why they stagnated and coasted purely on Messi’s brilliance until Luis Enrique arrived to shake things up.
Spurs have retained nine players as key figures in their side for two years, and remember the only reason it isn’t the full 11 is because Wanyama and Dier have had huge injury problems. And with the greatest of respect most of those players, whilst excellent for Spurs, cannot match up to the sheer quality of the core players that persisted at Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid.
What’s more, those elite clubs actually built around those cores. They are constantly bringing in new players to change the shape and dynamic of the team. Yeah sure, nine of the Barcelona XI was set under Guardiola, but the side ran through a bunch of different strikers and even added Cesc Fabregas to change the dynamic of the side.
Real Madrid have been through dozens of players in Ramos’ time at the club and are always on the lookout for new talent. Juve, meanwhile, voraciously pick-up savvy free agents and have dramatically rebuilt their attacking line several times in the last decade. Spurs, meanwhile, are still much the same.
In essence, Spurs have developed their own ‘Gala XI’ but unlike Barcelona’s, it doesn’t contain the greatest player of all-time to carry it. A tactical switch to 3-4-2-1 and then another one to 4-1-2-1-2 helped to keep things somewhat fresh, but Spurs’ squad is Marge Simpson’s Chanel suit at this point. There’s only so many alterations that Mauricio Pochettino can make before it all devolves into nonsense.
Daniel Levy is living in 2008 as concerns the transfer market. It’s like when the stadium got announced he decided that those were the prices and wages he could live with and just ignored the next decade of inflation in order to save for the stadium. Mauricio Pochettino’s genius has allowed Spurs to flourish in that time, but now he’s at the point where every single signing must have maximum value extracted, so he’s probably looking for only the “perfect player,” which of course doesn’t exist.
So you get situations like last summer when Spurs didn’t sign a single player. They are not building on their current squad at all, which means they’re not evolving and their existing players are being run into the ground. When they have to concentrate on the Champions League simultaneously with a semi-tricky league run in late March, they can’t handle it.
Taken in isolation Spurs can live with (and even beat) any of the teams they’ve lost to recently, but when everything is put together alongside European football their thin, tired and predictable squad is quite simply not built to handle the strain. They need intelligent investment in order for Pochettino’s phenomenal project to keep moving forward, otherwise stagnation will suck them down the table.