That was double-plus unfun. Tottenham Hotspur took a one goal lead at the San Siro in the Champions League and “spursed” it up in the most humiliating of fashions on Tuesday, conceding two goals in ten minutes including the winner in extra time, falling 2-1 to Inter Milan.
It’s the first time in the Mauricio Pochettino era that Spurs have dropped three consecutive matches, and it’s bound to start a series of “Tottenham in a tailspin” media narratives in the coming days. Truthfully, Tuesday’s match is not one that many Spurs fans are going to want to relive for a while, but there are a few things that we can take away from their performance.
1. Kane looks exhausted and needs a rest
72 minutes of action, zero shots. Not just “on target” — zero shots. Total. That is not the Harry Kane that we’ve known for the last few years, but Harry Kane hasn’t been the Harry Kane we’ve known ever since he got that ankle injury last season. More to the point, he looks absolutely exhausted on the pitch this season, which makes sense! He always plays a lot during the off-season and rarely gets a rest, but after a long season and a demanding World Cup, Kane looks like a player who has lost confidence in himself and his abilities.
The Kane we remember would’ve either chipped Inter’s keeper when Harry found himself one-on-one in the first half, or rounded him and buried the ball into the far corner. Instead, he rounded the keeper, took a heavy touch, lost control, and dribbled out for a goal kick. I don’t know if Kane is still dealing with the after effects of his ankle injury, if he’s not getting service, or if he’s just lost whatever it was that made him one of the best strikers in world football. Maybe it’s all three. Aside from Barcelona, the next stretch of matches for Spurs looks easier (if any match is easy) — at Brighton, vs. Watford (in Milton Keynes), at Huddersfield, vs. Barca, and vs. Cardiff. Kane doesn’t need to play all of those, and he might be better off in the long run if he doesn’t.
2. Spurs desperately need midfield help
The biggest takeaway from the early part of this season has been the noticeable and steady decline of Mousa Dembele. Instead of being a dribbly, dominant, press-resistant snowflake, this season he has become merely... competent, and that’s just no longer enough. Combine that with Dele Alli and Moussa Sissoko being hurt, Eric Dier going through a torrid run of form and both Victor Wanyama and Harry Winks only now coming back from injury, Spurs are nearing a crisis point in the center of midfield.
Spurs’ midfield wasn’t exactly a horror show against Inter — the pivot of Dier-Dembele and Dier-Winks were improved in the second half — but they still weren’t great. Dier went 56/64 in passing, but struggled mightily with Inter’s press. Dembele was 39/40, but most of Moose’s passing was lateral, and very few in Inter’s final third. Christian Eriksen was as you might expect the team’s most successful progressive midfielder, scoring flukily and creating two additional chances, but even Eriksen still seems off his feed. Spurs’ midfield is neither sharp nor healthy.
This is where critics of Spurs’ summer transfer window will say “I told you so” and based on current evidence it’d be hard to say that they’re wrong. The notable decline of Dembele is unfortunate, but not unexpected, and its ripple effects are being felt all across the team. In the short term, Spurs need their midfield to get healthy and get what rest they can in order to regain sharpness. In the medium to long term, they desperately need at least one, and possibly two, new central midfielders in January.
3. It’s not time to panic, but it may be time to temper our expectations
In an era of jerky knees and instant feedback via social media and message boards, it’s tempting to look at a string of tough losses and jump immediately to the fire-emoji takes. #PochOut was even trending for a while on Twitter. But those takes do everyone a disservice. Spurs’ losses came to talented teams on the road and to an extremely good Liverpool squad that look like they could win the league. This isn’t a loss to Cardiff. (Spurs play them later.)
And yet, there are serious problems at Tottenham Hotspur right now that were not helped by Spurs whiffing in the transfer window. Spurs have yet to play anything close to the way they were at the height of last season, and that’s very concerning. Right now, they don’t look like they’ll have a shot in hell at beating Barcelona, home or away, and they’ll probably need to run the table against PSV and Inter at home in order to escape their Champions League group.
Fan concerns can be easily soothed by a string of wins, and there are plenty of winnable games for Spurs ahead, both in the league and in the cups. There’s plenty of time to staunch the bleeding. However, fans who were hoping for Spurs to challenge for the Premier League title or make a run at the Champions League the way Liverpool did last year might want to temper expectations a bit. Form is temporary, but it’s all we have to go on, and right now Tottenham looks more like they might be battling for fourth rather than second.