You could forgive Arsenal fans feeling a sense of deja vu on Saturday evening. An away defeat to Liverpool is nothing new for the Gunners, who haven’t managed a win at Anfield since 2012. The feel of their defeat, however, was very different.
“I think we reduced the distance with Liverpool,” claimed Unai Emery after the loss. “At the moment it’s not enough but I think we can be, in some issues, positive.” He’s right. Emery’s men looked slick in attack and, at times, resilient at the back. Arsenal were more competitive in this fixture than they had been in years and, had it not been for 10 minutes of David Luiz madness and the inability of an otherwise-excellent Nicolas Pepe to hit the net, things could have been very different. There are signs that Arsenal are beginning to move forward and are learning from (some of) their previous mistakes.
The same could not be said of Tottenham less than 24 hours later. Their 1-0 home loss to a downtrodden Newcastle side was tough to swallow, but what hurt most was the manner of it: 80% possession and two shots on target, with their best defender and midfielder benched. A bank holiday Sunday wasted.
Perhaps more worrying is that the Newcastle result seems to reflect a clear downturn in recent times at Tottenham. Spurs have lost 14 of their last 32 games in all competitions, including defeats to Burnley, Southampton, West Ham and Bournemouth. The north Londoners are currently emulating the form of a team ready for mid-table mediocrity rather than that of a group ready to challenge for the title. The Champions League run papered over gaping cracks last season, while Spurs’ league form deteriorated. Had it not been for Arsenal’s capitulation, they might well be playing in the Europa League this term.
Ongoing speculation around the futures of various first-team players has unsettled what was thought to be a cohesive squad, and annoyed an ever-patient Mauricio Pochettino. Daniel Levy, the man whose job it is to manage contracts, doesn’t have to sit for hours with journalists as they grill him, probing for information and updates. Pochettino does. Levy doesn’t have to face the players every day on the training pitch and manage every frustration within the team. When asked about Eriksen's situation on Sunday, Pochettino spat: “Why do you ask me? Do you know something? The situation is so difficult but we cannot blame this [for the performance]. It is not a justification for the performance.” His frustration appears to have reached boiling point.
But it's fair enough. Off-field matters shouldn’t affect a team the size of Tottenham, but what we know and have seen - thanks to recent Netflix and Amazon series - is that football clubs are delicate ecosystems. Kieran Trippier was first to allude to the fact that things weren’t perhaps as rosy as they seemed at Spurs, shortly after he departed for Atletico Madrid in the summer. “Things happened behind the scenes at Tottenham,” claimed the England right-back. “I don't really want to go into them, but I needed to move on from that."
Fans' frustration at the situation is reasonable and boils down to one issue: with Christian Eriksen and Jan Verthonghen in the starting XI, Spurs are a better team. Questions have been raised about whether Levy’s hubris when negotiating contracts is now costing the Lilywhites points, and the answer appears to be yes.
In recent months, Pochetinno’s team selections have also come under scrutiny. Harry Winks has become this week’s scapegoat, thanks to the echo chambers of Twitter, but the blame game has become a spinning wheel of pointing fingers as a new victim is selected each week. Erik Lamela’s effectiveness and Moussa Sissoko’s worth in matches where Spurs dominate the ball represent more valid queries, but Spurs have become lethargic in possession, addicted to sideways passing, and have shown a distinct lack of urgency in games against bottom-half Premier League teams. The tendency to play narrow in congested areas and rely on a piece of individual skill to determine matches is, as a long-term plan, unsustainable.
Spurs fans will hope that Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso will be able to help ease the creative burden on Eriksen’s shoulders; both have an eye for a pass and the ability to drive the ball through the lines. Either way, the onus is firmly on Pochettino to find a new way of playing against deep-lying teams.
Despite everything, the beginning of this season actually reflects a perfectly normal start for Pochettino at Spurs. In fact, only twice before during his tenure has the Argentine managed more points by this stage of the season. Whether it’s his tough pre-season regime or back-to-school fatigue, it’s clear that Spurs have become slow starters. This year, though, with the stadium finished, transfers in place and squad close to full fitness, fans expected more.
Spurs travel four miles down the road to Arsenal this weekend, having only won there twice in the league in the last 26 years. If they manage to nick a win, everything will be forgotten. The European transfer window will creak shut, new contracts will be signed and Pochettino will be a hero once more. Lose, and Spurs are in ‘crisis’.
Football is fickle. It's too early to start talking about season-defining games, but make no mistake: for Spurs, this is arguably the biggest north London derby in years.
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