That was bad.
Indeed, it was “Shades of Late AVB-Era Spurs” bad, at least for the last 15 minutes.
What’s going on?
Here are three theories, which I’m ranking from least to most plausible.
Mauricio Pochettino hasn’t figured out his tactics yet.
It’s well-established at this point that Pochettino takes time to figure out his best team and system. He never figured it out in his first year at Spurs. In subsequent years he usually didn’t arrive on a system until late fall—he didn’t start Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier together in the double pivot until late fall of 2015. He didn’t switch to the 3-5-2 until December of 2016. Last year’s air raid made its first appearances in November.
So given the turnover in the team, it is possible that what we’re seeing now is that awkward, messy window in which Pochettino is figuring out his team. It’s been a few years since the process was this much of a disaster, of course, but then it’s also been a few years since we had so much upheaval in the squad. Perhaps Pochettino just needs a bit more time to figure things out—and for Tanguy Ndombele, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, and Giovani Lo Celso to get fully fit.
Likelihood This is True (scale of 0-5 chirpies): 2.
Why? The defining problem so far this season has not been Spurs getting soundly thrashed over a full match, as you would expect if the team is consistently getting beaten tactically. The only match where this happened was the trip to Manchester City. In the remaining games, Spurs have basically played their opponents close to even on expected goals. Even the 7-2 defeat to Bayern was relatively close on xG, especially prior to the alarming final ten minutes.
The Pochettino cult is collapsing.
This is the least fun scenario, but we have to consider it, especially after yesterday’s fixture.
We know that every manager not named “Sir Alex Ferguson” has a shelf life at a certain club. Pep Guardiola typically maxes his teams out by year three and then he maintains that level for a short time before declining. Jose Mourinho’s shelf-life is shorter. Antonio Conte lasted only two years at Chelsea. Even Jurgen Klopp hit a wall in year seven at Borussia Dortmund—though the team’s expected goals performance that season was better than their actual results.
More controlling and demanding managers, such as Mauricio Pochettino, often have even shorter shelf lives at clubs because eventually players start to tune the manager out, get tired of his demands, or both.
We’re now in year six of the Pochettino era. Maybe we’ve hit the sell-by date and it is time for club and manager to move on.
The only manager working right now who has lasted as long at one club as Pochettino and who has mostly managed this problem without major incident is Diego Simeone. You could actually argue that Simeone is Pochettino’s closest parallel. Both are Argentinians who were scrappy, physical players who then took over traditionally second-tier elite clubs with a history of under-achieving. Both then installed a personality cult at the club built around loyalty, belief, and hard work.
The differences are worth noting, however. Because of the way La Liga is set up, even Simeone’s worst years still end with Atletico qualifying for the Champions League because of the sizable gap between Spain’s big three and the rest of the top division. A bad Pochettino year could easily see Spurs slip to sixth or even seventh. Indeed, in year one Spurs should have been midtable if you’re going by expected goals. That is almost certainly never going to happen at Atletico because the gap between the Rojiblancos and the rest of the non-Clasico Spanish sides is huge.
What’s more, Atletico has traditionally been able to be more competitive on wages relative to the rest of La Liga and even the rest of the second-tier European elite. That makes recruitment easier which, in turn, makes it easier to turn the page from one generation to the next.
Perhaps in the absence of those conditions, even the Simeone cult would decline. We can’t say for sure. But what we do know is that we’re seeing some signs that all is not well behind-the-scenes at Spurs. And one plausible theory is that Pochettino has lost the dressing room, as most managers eventually do.
Likelihood This is True: 3.5 chirpies
Why? It’s far harder to dismiss this one than it is the tactics theory. Even so, the performances don’t necessarily suggest a mutinous dressing room. Alongside the awful fixtures, there have been several great performances. Opening day against Villa was an excellent performance. The win against Palace was very good. The performance against Southampton was strong, given the circumstances of the match. We’ve been uneven this year, certainly, but that could have other, more plausible explanations than positing that Pochettino’s time at Spurs is coming to a close because he has lost the dressing room.
Tottenham’s midfield is still horrible.
Speaking of Ndombele, Dele, and Lo Celso—did you know Tottenham’s midfield was really bad last year? And did you know that we’re basically still playing the same very bad midfield this year because Ndombele, Lo Celso, and Dier have been struggling with injuries?
It’s possible that what we are seeing now is merely the chickens coming home to roost. Spurs have not had a reliable ball-winning midfielder for over a year nor have we had a consistent progression midfielder. Theoretically the addition of Ndombele and Lo Celso should fix that, as would, you know, actually playing Eric Dier. But as long as Ndombele and Lo Celso are struggling for fitness and Dier is on the bench, Spurs will continue to struggle. You need a functioning midfield to compete at the level Spurs want to compete at. Tottenham don’t have such a midfield right now. But by the end of this month they likely will, assuming Dele, Ndombele, and Lo Celso have all returned to full fitness and Poche has ended his bizarre banishment of Dier.
Likelihood This is True: 4.5 chirpies
Why? Tottenham’s midfield genuinely is bad. And in the vast majority of cases, it is going to be difficult or impossible to compensate for that across a long run of fixtures. Certainly it seems to be the case that Tottenham’s performance against Bayern correlates almost exactly with “was Tanguy Ndombele in the game?”
you can basically track Tottenham's performance in this game precisely to Tanguy Ndombele's production— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) October 1, 2019
it's a problem when you've only got one passer and one ballwinner in midfield and they're the same dude, and he's not superhumanly fit
Thankfully, we should know by sometime in November what the issues actually are. Over the next two months Spurs only have one match where you should probably expect the team to lose—a rough home fixture with Liverpool. Otherwise all of the league fixtures are games where you’d figure on Spurs to at least get a draw—and you could reasonably expect a win in most of the games. Likewise, the two Champions League fixtures are with Red Star Belgrade. That’s a beast of an away day, of course, but in terms of the quality of the opponent, Red Star is not Bayern.
Moreover, Dele and Ndombele are already back and playing their way into fitness. Lo Celso should return this month. And at this point there is no reason whatsoever to persist in starting Winks when Dier appears to be fit. If in November we’re still consistently seeing Winks and Sissoko in midfield, that would be a cause for concern. Similarly, if we’re seeing the new personnel and results have still been poor, that would be a cause for concern. But ultimately I still suspect that the problem is midfield, the fix is fairly obvious, and if the team strings together a couple strong performances we may find that we forget about this awful start to the season fairly quickly.