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We Didn’t Learn Anything New from the Wolverhampton Defeat

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Three at the back works against two-striker systems, Spurs don’t have a midfield, Dele is good, and other things we already knew

Tottenham Hotspur v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Premier League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Because I have several small kids and because my wife was out of town last weekend, while many of you were watching Spurs capitulate late to Wolves, I was sitting at a bakery with my kids wondering why my phone was blowing up with Fotmob notifications that told me Spurs had conceded... and then conceded... and then conceded again.

After getting the kids buckled in, I pulled out my phone before pulling out of the lot to try and figure out what happened. I saw three things immediately and, combined, they told me everything I needed to know about the game:

  1. Spurs struggled to create in the opening hour as their two-striker system was neutralized by a team playing three at the back.
  2. At almost the same time, Spurs withdrew Dele Alli, our only elite ball-recovery midfielder in the game, and Wolves brought on Joao Moutinho, their best passing midfielder.
  3. In the final half hour, Spurs still struggled to create but now Wolves could pass and Spurs’ non-existent midfield was exposed.

None of this is surprising.

None of it should lead to massive revisionism about the expectations for Tottenham this season.

Wolves are an excellent team. They beat us on xG in the reverse fixture earlier this season, in fact. According to xG, Wolves are the league’s fourth best defense and are closer statistically to Liverpool (second best) than they are to Spurs (sixth best). Given the fixture congestion this time of year and Spurs particularly tight schedule plus injury issues, a bad result against a team of their caliber is not at all surprising.

What’s more, the fatal flaw that Wolves exposed is not surprising either: Spurs don’t have a midfield. With Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele, and Victor Wanyama unavailable for much of the season, the team has relied on Maurico Pochettino to essentially come up with a solution using a bit of string (Harry Winks), a hot glue gun (DESK), and some scrap paper left behind from another project (Moussa Sissoko).

To Pochettino’s immense credit, his jury-rigged solution has worked. Spurs are off to their best ever league start, the attack has been genuinely outstanding in the past month, and the team has a very good shot at yet another top four finish. But none of that should make us forget the simple fact that this is a cobbled together solution that desperately needs, at minimum, 1-2 quality midfielders and quite possibly a fullback or two as well.

What should we expect the rest of the season? Two responses immediately spring to mind.

First, Spurs are not going to challenge for a title.

Given that we may be looking at a historically great Liverpool team (a picture of what Spurs might have become if we were as well run in terms of scouting and investment as the Anfield side) and a fairly typical Pep Guardiola-edition Manchester City, it was silly to ever expect a team that made no summer signings to contend for a title.

Second, Spurs will go as far as DESK can carry them.

If Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Son Heung-Min, and Harry Kane can stay fit for the duration of the campaign, Spurs will almost certainly finish in the top four. While Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea is solid and Man United looks resurgent under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, both sides will still drop points they shouldn’t and Spurs are good enough to at least not drop any more than they do, barring an unprecedented run by either side. (Arsenal, meanwhile, continue to be Extremely Arsenal.)

That being said, should any of those four go down, it is not hard to imagine Spurs slipping down the table. The defense is closer to what it was in year one of the Pochettino era than in any season since. This is largely due to the non-existent midfield. And if Spurs are forced to rely upon Lucas Moura or Erik Lamela to contribute on the same elite level as any member of their first choice attackers, the team is likely to be disappointed. This is not necessarily to fault Moura or Lamela, both of whom are certainly squad-level players for a team with Champions League ambitions. It is, rather, a commentary on how genuinely excellent each of the four key attackers has been and how difficult it is for any club, let alone a club with Spurs’ limited financial resources, to find replacement-level players for such wonderful talents.

Thus it begins to look as if Year Five of the Pochettino era may well be a transition moment. If we look to Klopp-era Dortmund and Simeone Atletico as parallels for Pochettino’s Tottenham, then we can imagine the team going one of two ways: They may find suitable replacements to rotate into the team as that manager’s first generation of talents leaves the club. Atletico has done this many times under Simeone, with players like Stefan Savic, Jan Oblak, and Antoine Griezmann emerging as more than capable replacements for Joao Miranda, Thibaut Courtois, and Diego Costa. Or the team fails to find adequate replacements, either due to inaction or failed transfers, and flounders as the manager’s personality begins to wear thin on the players and the team begins to collapse.

Of course, you could argue that neither Dortmund or Atletico had quite the same top-level talent during their transition years. Though both teams were very good and Atletico was better than Spurs in several areas, neither could boast four attacking players on the level of Tottenham’s front four. That suggests that Tottenham’s ceiling is very high indeed if they can address their problems. But it also may mean that the team has further to fall if they don’t.