After getting within touching distance of the Champions League trophy in June, Tottenham prepared for a summer of rebuilding.
Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose were all expected to leave, so Spurs brought in Ryan Sessegnon, Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso to freshen up the squad. Why, then, does the new Tottenham bare so many similarities to last season’s sporadically brilliant but ultimately flawed machine?
The Londoners have endured a disjointed start to the new campaign, winning just two of their opening six Premier League fixtures and surrendering a two-goal lead to draw with Olympiacos in their first Champions League game. Indeed, surrendering leads has been the story of Spurs’ season so far, something Arsenal, Olympiacos and Leicester City have all benefited from.
Their start turned from disjointed to dire on Tuesday night with a Carabao Cup third round defeat at League Two side Colchester United, provoking genuine concerns over Tottenham’s ability to meet their objectives this term.
Mauricio Pochettino hasn’t been helped by losing all three of his summer signings to injury already. Lo Celso and Sessegnon are currently sidelined with hip and hamstring problems respectively, while Ndombele is back but will need additional time to settle.
However, Spurs’ current problems can’t solely be pinned on the unavailability of their new recruits. Pochettino has made mistakes of late – some bigger than others – and the issues created by those errors of judgement have generated inconsistent results and performances, both individually and collectively.
So, what are the mistakes Spurs have made since their Champions League final defeat to Liverpool? And what must Pochettino do to make his team more consistent?
1. Sticking with the diamond
Whether it’s a typical diamond or a narrow three-man midfield, Pochettino’s go-to tactic since the beginning of last season hasn’t been consistently successful. So far this season, we’ve mostly seen Harry Winks sitting in front of the back four and recycling possession, with Ndombele and Moussa Sissoko in box-to-box roles either side of the England international.
Further forward, three attackers – usually Harry Kane, Heung-min Son and either Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela or Lucas Moura – provide the goal threat. But this trio operates centrally, as does the midfield unit. Consequently, the width comes solely from the full-backs.
The system has made it difficult for Spurs to produce any effective combination play down the flanks. When they have enjoyed success out wide, it has been because of a stand-out individual display from a full-back, such as Serge Aurier’s against Crystal Palace.
Son and Lucas have been more prolific through the middle than out wide for Tottenham, while Eriksen and Lamela are central playmakers more than anything else, so it’s understandable that Pochettino wants those players to float around Harry Kane. But Spurs’ narrowness has made them somewhat predictable.
A more traditional 4-2-3-1 with dedicated wingers might be something for Pochettino to try. Dele Alli’s return to full fitness could be pivotal in that regard; his presence in support of Kane would permit Son and Lucas to drift wider.
2. Indecisiveness at right-back
Tottenham sought to resolve their two main problem positions in the summer: central midfield and right-back. In the long run, Ndombele could be a transformative addition in the middle of the park, but the club failed to bring in a replacement for Kieran Trippier.
As a result, Pochettino has already tried three different players at right-back since the summer – four if you include young centre-back Juan Foyth, who played on the right more than anyone else during pre-season before suffering an ankle injury.
Aurier is the only right-back to have really thrived in recent weeks, providing two assists against Crystal Palace and seeing a goal unfortunately disallowed by VAR at Leicester. The Ivorian was subsequently left out of the squad altogether for the trip to Olympiacos a few days later.
The choice to leave Aurier out was made stranger by the fact that Davinson Sanchez came in on the right. The Colombian struggled against Arsenal before the international break and looked unlikely to play out of position again, but Pochettino picked him over Kyle Walker-Peters, who was available on the bench in the Champions League opener.
A run of games for Aurier may have given him the confidence to kick on and establish himself as a regular starter, but Pochettino has displayed a level of unnecessary indecisiveness with his right-backs lately, something that could have been prevented by entering the market.
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3. Overly cautious rotation
Right-back isn’t the only position Spurs have lacked consistency in this season. Pochettino has received plenty of criticism for his team selections this term, some of which has been unfair – but there is logic behind the dissenting voices.
Fitness and sports science are two of the main pillars in Pochettino’s philosophy but there is an argument to be made that the Argentinian can be overly cautious when it comes to rotation. For example, dropping Son for the trip to Olympiacos after his two-goal performance against Crystal Palace was certainly a strange decision.
Son missed the first two matches of the season through suspension, so Pochettino has been careful with his integration back into the team. But the Champions League opener provided an opportunity for the South Korean to gather further momentum. Instead, he has drawn a blank in every match since the Palace victory.
Pochettino has been giving other players the chance to impress and prove their fitness; Alli made his first start of the campaign in Athens. But taking in-form players out of the team for the sake of conditioning can have an adverse effect on results. It’s something that needs to be taken into account as the fixtures continue to come thick and fast.
4. Still making substitutions too late
For all of the things Pochettino has (rightly) been praised for during his Tottenham career, there remains a few hang-ups he just can’t shake, one of which being his use of substitutes.
The Spurs boss often leaves changes until too late in matches, resulting in ineffective introductions with little or no time to change the course of the game. In Saturday’s defeat at Leicester, Eriksen wasn’t introduced until the 79th minute. Tottenham could have done with his creativity far earlier.
Not only are most of the substitutions late, but they are also quite often questionable changes. Victor Wanyama came on for his first minutes of the season against Leicester having nearly sealed a move to Club Brugge on deadline day, only to be responsible for both Leicester goals.
This led to questions as to why he was brought on ahead of Eric Dier in the first place. Wanyama has looked out of sorts for some time now after a series of unfortunate injuries – can he really still be trusted to help Spurs see out difficult away games? The evidence would suggest not.
5. Rewarding the dissenters
This is a contentious and divisive point, yet there is a line of thinking among some sections of the Tottenham support that the players who sought an exit in the summer should not be starting matches. Rose and Eriksen have both been wildly inconsistent in recent weeks, adding credence to that argument.
Why Spurs were unable to ship their wantaway players remains a bit of a mystery. Alderweireld and Eriksen, both now having entered the final 12 months of their contracts, were surely available for cut-price fees – Alderweireld certainly was due to a release clause in his deal.
Rose and Jan Vertonghen also endured turbulent summers. The former was left out of the early pre-season games to hold talks with other clubs but ended up staying put, while Vertonghen was dropped at the beginning of the campaign amid talk of his own contract uncertainty.
Pochettino put faith in youth at Colchester but things didn’t work out, so it’s easy to see why he feels the dissenters must be in the team, although he has used Eriksen only intermittently. Ultimately, it all goes to show that while the squad has plenty of depth, the uncertainty surrounding the futures of so many players is negatively affecting the team as a whole.
Moving forward, Pochettino must work to correct the mistakes he has been making and ensure Tottenham’s promising summer business wasn’t for nothing.