I have small kids so please forgive the Toy Story analogy. Early in the movie the new toy, Buzz Lightyear (who thinks he’s a space ranger), explains to the other toys in Andy’s room that he can fly. Woody, the sheriff and previous favorite of Andy, doesn’t believe him. Buzz “proves” it by seemingly flying around the room. Really what he does is get lucky in increasingly improbable and absurd ways that allow him to appear to fly. Woody, rightly, calls it “falling with style.”
But it worked—at least that one time.
You could argue that any team with the combination of Tottenham Hotspur’s ambitions and financial resources is always trying to fall with style—consistent top four success when there are five teams with significantly more money than you always requires a fair bit of luck.
For much of the Mauricio Pochettino era, Spurs have had it. Not only have there been at least two of the big six who had very bad years during each of the past four seasons, Spurs themselves have also enjoyed a remarkable run of luck.
Consider each of the seasons that Spurs have finished in the top four:
2015-16: Eric Dier magically turns into a midfielder. Harry Kane emerges as an elite Premier League striker. Dele Alli is a ready-made EPL star. Toby Alderweireld arrives and rejoins former Ajax teammate Jan Vertonghen at the heart of the team’s defense. Erik Lamela stays fit all season.
2016-17: Son Heung-Min, Christian Eriksen, and Dele improve dramatically. Kane matures. Victor Wanyama arrives from Southampton and, eventually, Pochettino figures out how to build a system that involves both Dier and Wanyama.
2017-18: Kane becomes the best striker in the world. Davinson Sanchez arrives and looks like a European-level center back.
2018-19: Spurs basically use duct tape and glue to put together three serviceable months and still only finish top four because, somehow, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea are all even bigger disasters down the stretch than Tottenham.
The thing you won’t notice: Many examples of new players arriving and contributing as key players in the squad. The last signings to arrive who have become stars at the club both arrived prior to the 2015-16 season: Son Heung-Min and Toby Alderweireld. We have signed some decent contributors since then—Wanyama gave us a good season before being broken by injuries. Sanchez has looked good at times. Juan Foyth shows promise as a right back. Lucas Moura has scored some huge goals. But prior to this past summer the club hadn’t signed players on Tanguy Ndombele or Giovani Lo Celso’s level since the summer of 2015.
That we kept finishing in the top four is down to genius-level management by Pochettino and the fact that our key players all maintained their same level or improved season-to-season. Prior to this year the only key players in the team who had shown significant signs of wear were Danny Rose and Kane and in Kane’s case even that was maybe down to a lack of rest rather than Kane being permanently diminished.
Here’s what we’ve seen this year: Hugo Lloris is injured and out till the new year. Jan Vertonghen has lost a step. Toby Alderweireld has looked a little older, though that could be last-year-of-contractitis. Rose is clearly diminished. Kane is a shadow of his former self. Eriksen is in the same boat as Alderweireld. Dier seems to be well past his best.
To fully appreciate the problem, let’s frame it like this. The Pochettino core at Spurs since 2015-16 has been Lloris, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier, Son Heung-Min, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, and Harry Kane. Of the group, Dele and Son are the only players who are both still with the club and do not seem to have significantly regressed over the past 12 months. If you narrow it down to the core seven, Lloris, Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Dele, Son, Eriksen, and Kane, you have five that have dramatically regressed or are injured with only two players still performing at peak levels.
There are other similar problems that are also related to this “falling with style” issue: A team like Spurs cannot afford to have multiple bad windows in a row. But Spurs did that too. A number of players who were signed with the expectation that they’d be regular starters and key contributors have not panned out: Serge Aurier nearly left the club over the summer. Davinson Sanchez has regressed since his first year with the club. Harry Winks has regressed this season. Moussa Sissoko has never made significant improvements, even if Pochettino did find ways to use the strengths he does have to great effect last season. Vincent Janssen came and went without making any impact at the club. Likewise, lottery tickets like Clinton N’Jie and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou never produced.
The issue for Spurs is that eventually you need new core players to arrive. Eventually your established stars stop improving. Eventually bad transfer windows catch up with you.
Certainly, you can argue that Spurs are unfortunate in having a lot of bills come due at the same time. But this would have been Tottenham’s fifth consecutive season relying on the same seven players to carry them. That is an eternity in soccer. Frankly, the fact that Pochettino got four years out of such an unchanged group is remarkable. But you can’t fall with style forever. Eventually you miss the ball, crash to the floor, and break into pieces—and that seems to be what has happened to this Tottenham squad. Now the only question is who will be around for the rebuild—Ndombele, Lo Celso, Son, and Dele are a great platform, assuming all four stay, but who will manage them?