One of the more annoying narratives to come out of last weekend’s FA Cup semifinal defeat to Chelsea is that Tottenham are well on their way to becoming experts in failure, consistently coming to the edge of greatness only to stumble at the last hurdle.
The meme, such as it is, has grown over the years thanks to the club’s obnoxious knack to come right up to the edge of success only to falter at the last. They finished fifth twice in a three-year window and the one year they finished fourth they still missed out on the Champions League after Chelsea won the title against Bayern Munich. Though it was out of their hands, even on that point some attacked Spurs for even falling down to fourth in the first place.
There have been other examples as well—we’ve had multiple losses to Chelsea in the late stages of England’s two domestic cups, including a League Cup final defeat two seasons ago and two straight semifinal defeats in the FA Cup. And, of course, there is last season when we ran into the Fairy Tale Buzzsaw that was Leicester City.
Upon looking at all that evidence, many pundits have concluded that Tottenham lack the mettle and grit (should we use hashtags for those?) necessary to achieve true footballing greatness. Though a predictable hot take in today’s sports media context, such an argument is mostly wrong-headed for a couple reasons.
In the first place, the only things that have been constant in the window many are discussing—seven straight FA Cup semifinal defeats or a more regular run of near misses in the past 6-8 years—are Daniel Levy and Spurs fandom. The club has gone through a number of managers and, at this point, the only Spurs player still with the club who played at all in the 2009-10 Champions League season is left back Danny Rose. The entire rest of the squad has changed.
Indeed, the changes since the 2015 League Cup final have been enormous. Here is the match-day 18 for that final match against Chelsea played only two seasons ago:
Walker, Dier, Vertonghen, Rose
Townsend, Eriksen, Chadli
Bench: Vorm, Fazio, Davies, Lamela, Dembele, Stambouli, Soldado
Of the 18 to play that day, seven are no longer with the club. Of the six players to start in the midfield and attacking roles, only two are still with the club. Unless you are going to claim that there is some kind of Spurs Stink that has clung to a remarkably high number of people, it’s hard to argue for any sort of psychological frailty that has apparently afflicted a great many players.
But there’s a more basic reason that this meme is a glib way of looking at Tottenham’s recent success. Winning trophies in any sport is complicated and is especially so in a sport like soccer where chance plays such a high role in determining the outcome of individual fixtures. A bounce can go against you, a key player can be injured, or a referee can have a real howler. Caley said it well last week when he reviewed Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich.
looking forward to reading takes two months from now about how Ancelotti failed at Bayern because he didn't win this trophy— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) April 18, 2017
The difference between Real Madrid winning their third Champions League in four seasons and falling out in the quarterfinals this year may well be a bad referee performance. But no one will stick an asterisk next to the triumph if Zinedine Zidane’s men go on to win another European Cup.
The truth about this weekend’s game is that, for the second time in a row, Spurs played Chelsea evenly. In the first game, Tottenham won thanks to two moments of magic from Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli. In this game, Chelsea won thanks to two great strikes from Eden Hazard and Nemanja Matic. That’s soccer.
Here’s the real kicker: I would wager good money that there would be less hand-wringing going on right now if we had just lost to Wycombe back in the fourth round. If that happens, well, a Premier League team didn’t take their early-round FA Cup tie against lower league opposition seriously.
FA Cup purists would moan about it, but no one would think that the defeat suggested any kind of Deeper Troubles at Spurs. Instead, we staged a remarkable late comeback against Wycombe, smashed every subsequent opponent we faced, and then played the likely league champions evenly in a massive late-season game at Wembley.
Despite all that, somehow losing to Chelsea is a sign that Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark. The reality is far more prosaic: Spurs are an elite team punching above their financial weight. They played an elite, far wealthier rival with far superior depth to a standstill. The match swung on two moments of individual brilliance. This time those moments favored Chelsea. That’s fine. It happens. But whatever you do, don’t judge the current state of Tottenham Hotspur based on five minutes of play in a single FA Cup semifinal.