It’s easy to overreact after a bad loss, and Tottenham Hotspur certainly got their butts handed to them on Saturday. Spurs’ 2-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield not only halted the Reds’ winless 2017 in an emphatic fashion, but probably ended Spurs’ brief tenure as Premier League title contenders.
The loss also put into sharp focus the fact that Spurs struggle when members of their preferred starting XI are out of action. This was a problem last year too, and despite a summer transfer window dedicated to beefing up the squad, it hasn’t yet been fully addressed.
Ben Davies, in for the injured Danny Rose, had an especially rough time against Liverpool. While the Welshman is certainly a capable fullback, he is a very different player than Rose, and it was glaringly obvious before Saturday’s match that Sadio Mane would present a major headache for Davies. That reality was born out emphatically, with Mane torching Davies again and again in the first half.
It would be unfair to put the loss solely on Davies’ shoulders. He isn’t a poor player, but his struggles on Saturday only emphasize a harsh reality: when fully healthy and playing their preferred starting XI, Spurs are an excellent team, capable of beating any team in the league, including Chelsea. But take away a few key players and Spurs have the same issue that dogged them for most of last season: their reserves still aren’t good enough against top competition.
In this summer’s transfer window, Tottenham weren’t trying to sign flashy new starters. Instead, Spurs spent the whole of their business trying to improve their depth. Spurs ended up with Victor Wanyama, Vincent Janssen, Georges-Kevin N’Koudou, Pau Lopez, and Moussa Sissoko, and promoted Cameron Carter-Vickers, Harry Winks, and Josh Onomah to the first team.
We have seen enough now of Spurs’ fringe players to know that it has not been enough. While Wanyama has played every league game for Spurs this season, becoming one of Mauricio Pochettino’s most trusted players in the process, and Harry Winks has been a promising and surprising revelation in midfield, most of Spurs’ bench options have been at best decent, but nowhere near ready to come in and make an immediate impact.
Janssen, for all his promise, has been disappointing in his first season at Spurs. N’Koudou has shown glimpses of ability, but injury has cut short his time on the pitch and Pochettino has been strangely unwilling to give him much of a chance. Kevin Wimmer has seemingly played himself out of a major role in Spurs’ defense, despite a solid 2015-16 campaign, and there are now questions as to whether he may be on his way out of the club. The less said about Moussa Sissoko, who has been a disaster, the better.
To be sure, the absences of Rose and Vertonghen weren’t the only, or perhaps even the main reason that Spurs lost to Liverpool. Virtually the entire team was poor, and Pochettino clearly should take the lion’s share of the blame for how he set up his team. But it continues a troubling trend where Spurs have struggled to cope against good opposition when missing important players.
Spurs’ season thus far has been marked by two periods where their play hasn’t been especially great, and both coincide with major injuries. Tottenham struggled throughout October and November when they were without Toby Alderweireld and (for a while) Mousa Dembele, a stretch that saw them crash out of the Champions League and take seven out of 18 points the Premier League.
The past four matches without Vertonghen and Rose haven’t resulted in the same kinds of poor results (Spurs have eked out a last-gasp win over League 2 Wycombe, a draw against last-place Sunderland, a narrow win over Middlesbrough, and Saturday’s loss), but Spurs have looked less than sharp and have struggled to convert chances into goals.
In both cases, injuries resulted in significant tactical adjustments, since Pochettino either doesn’t have like-for-like players, or the players he does have he doesn’t trust to be solid contributors in the Premier League. Those tactical changes have made Spurs a worse team, unable to play the way they want because Poch lacks the players to make his system work. And that’s a problem.
Pochettino opted not to try and strengthen his side in the January transfer window, for valid reasons - new signings take time to adapt to Poch’s system, and he clearly felt comfortable that he’d be able to weather any potential storm with the players he already has. Now, Spurs enter a period where their continued participation in three competitions will mean that they will need to rotate their players to keep them healthy, or else play a B-team and risk the possibility of crashing out of the Europa League and/or the FA Cup.
Spurs can’t count on their first team to win every match. It’s troubling that the players waiting in the wings, including those that Spurs signed this summer, haven’t yet lived up to their promise.
Nobody can anticipate injuries, of course. But you can plan for them. Likewise the biggest knock on Spurs last season was that, while they stayed remarkably healthy, their squad was unable to cope with playing in multiple competitions.
Spurs now face the possibility of both scenarios: competing on multiple fronts with key injuries. Reserves like Wimmer, Janssen, Davies, Sissoko, and Kieran Trippier either need to step up and prove that they have the ability to play at a high level for Tottenham Hotspur, or Spurs will need to once again spend next summer’s transfer window building a deeper and more complete squad.