Tottenham Hotspur have, in my head, lost four consecutive Premier League games. Rafael Van der Vaart scored to snatch a point from the Stoke City match on Wednesday, but I will always remember it as a loss. Even the process of writing these sentences will not change my memories.
Some time, in about 2015, someone will ask me, "Remember when we were above Arsenal for the entire season, only to choke away our lead in less than a month?" I will reply "Yeah, and that loss against Stoke was huge. That's when I felt like it was over. When we lost to Stoke I knew we weren't coming back."
Or course, Tottenham do have a chance to come back. They're only one point behind Arsenal with nine games left to play. Arsenal are in good form, but they're hardly a spectacular team. They're still made up of the same guys that lost to us at White Hart Lane, that got killed at Ewood Park, and that got trashed at the San Siro. Their good form and their awful games balance out to show what they really are: a respectable, but unspectacular team. Somewhere between the third and fifth best team in the country. We knew that this is what they were when the season started. A team of that pedigree can lose a couple games in a row against teams that aren't that good, and a team of Tottenham's pedigree can win nine straight.
We'll forget about all the pain and all the disappointment if we beat Chelsea on Saturday. Fans, as a whole, are a fickle bunch. I admit to being part of that crowd, and if you don't, you're probably lying to yourself. I know some of you said that our season was over when we lost to Arsenal, and some of those same people will say that we're going to finish third if we beat Chelsea convincingly. I'm not even criticizing these people -- once again, I'm in this group. I didn't say that our season was over when we lost to Arsenal and I'm not calling us favorites to clinch third if we beat Chelsea, but I jump to some knee-jerk conclusions. I think being a fan of a team is more about this than it is about hating your rival. Your team wins or loses and you get worked up, because you're emotional about it. You say things that are illogical or that you don't really mean, because you're caught up in something the team you love just did.
At the end of the Stoke game, my reaction was a bad one. We played like trash. Anyone who says that Stoke didn't deserve anything because "they don't play football" or some other such nonsense is a self-righteous clown; they're a person who practices football ethnocentrism. You know the whiner two tables down from you at a restaurant, being an asshole about not touching the calamari because "eating octopus is weird"? They're that guy.
I like pretty football and I started watching Spurs because they play a certain way, but if you think that certain way is the "right way", go support Barcelona. You'll fit right in. The fact is, Stoke had a plan. They had a plan that is similar to the plan that they have in every single game that they play. We knew what that plan would be. We knew that they would defend deep and hoof long balls towards their forwards. We knew that they would defend set pieces well and look to capitalize on attacking set pieces. We defended their set pieces poorly and had no idea how to attack their goal. On what universe did we play a better game than they did? Because we kept it on the ground, had a high passing percentage and took shots? Those shots went into Stoke defenders! How the hell is that good?!?
How many times have Tottenham supporters criticized Arsenal for doing EXACTLY what Tottenham did on Wednesday? We kept the ball, took shots and played in their third. And we did f-all with all of these things. Passing the ball better than your opponent does not make you better at football. Hell, playing the entire game in their half doesn't make you better at football. Stoke had a plan and we (supposedly) had a plan. Stoke executed their gameplan to perfection until stoppage time. We did not execute our plan well until stoppage time. We had the quality to grab a draw at the end and earned that point with our quality, but for 92 minutes, we were out-played. You can have the ball and get out-played. If you don't think that's possible, you must think Martin O'Neill is the most overrated manager in the history of world football. Inter Milan won a Champions League title on the back of out-playing Barcelona and Bayern Munich without the ball.
Of course, there is a potential legitimate excuse for Tottenham playing poorly. The game happened just four days after most of the players who played against Stoke saw Fabrice Muamba suffer from a cardiac arrest on a football pitch. If I saw that in person, with a man who shared my profession close to death just feet in front of me, it would take me more than four days before I could perform said profession at a high level again.
"No, not at all," Redknapp said when quizzed if the events of four days ago had affected his players' performances.
"Nothing affects them - they've been ready to play. I'd be making excuses if I said that."
It's very possible that Harry Redknapp is going out of his way to not make excuses. Maybe he's just telling a bold-faced lie. Maybe his players are lying to him.
If Harry or the players are lying and they were seriously affected by the Muamba tragedy against Stoke, I can't blame them at all. If one of Tottenham's players came out and admitted that they lied when they told the manager that they were fine, and that they were unable to perform because of Muamba, I would understand. I think everyone would understand. I wouldn't fault a player for that at all -- either for being so strongly affected by what happened or for lying about it so that they could carry on doing their job. In both respects, I seriously empathize, and I would never criticize a player for this.
But if Harry isn't lying and if he hasn't been deceived, there is no excuse for the performance against Stoke. Based on the way the game went, I'm led to believe that neither was the case. Tottenham didn't look like a team that was rattled or unfocused. They looked like a team that didn't have clue. So...they looked like the team that lost to Manchester United and Everton.
There were no new problems on Wednesday, just all of the same ones that existed in those games.
Gareth Bale drifted into the center, and hit just one kind of ball when he did go wide left. The team failed to get the ball to Luka Modric regularly, and his teammates didn't make great runs for him to find them with. Set piece marking was calamitous, and Tottenham took two different kinds of attacking set pieces: Balls that hit the first defender and balls that found an empty space. These were problems with Harry's tinkering and failure to practice set pieces. Scott Parker was the same kind of poor as he was against Arsenal. Louis Saha was the same kind of poor as he has been in every game this season for Tottenham OR Everton, with the exception of the Newcastle game. It was all the same crap on a different day.
And it is, quite frankly the same crap that can't happen anymore. In the case of set pieces, it's not getting fixed this season. It's probably not getting fixed until Harry Redknapp leaves the team. It's an annoying enough shortcoming that I will not be upset if Harry leaves, even if England don't pay much in compensation and we finish in third place. I simply can't take it anymore.
The other stuff, though? That can be fixed in a day. Bale can hug the touchline and he can make the decision to take a shot or cut the ball back for a deep runner once in a while. The team can make a conscious effort to get the ball to Modric more, and they can make an effort to look for off the ball runs. Saha can start passing to his teammates when he has his back to goal and start looking to score when he's facing it.
If this team can't get over what they witnessed happen to Muamba, fine. I can accept that. But if that's not the reason they were bad against Stoke, there's no excuse. I'm sick of Spurs being terrible.