In late October, when it was clear that something was drastically wrong at Tottenham Hotspur, there were two plausible explanations as to what had gone wrong.
First, long-time manager Mauricio Pochettino had lost the dressing room and the players were under-performing as a result. There were reasons to buy this theory: It was clear that Danny Rose, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld, at least, had issues with Pochettino. Moreover, there’s a fairly well-established record in major football of most elite managers wearing out their welcome at a club after three or four seasons—that Pochettino made it through five spoke well of his talents as a manager. But expecting more than five years from any one manager, particularly when the manager has to work with Daniel Levy, was probably unrealistic. This theory was particularly attractive because it meant that the team could be ‘fixed’ via a managerial change, which is, all things considered, a relatively simple fix.
Second, the squad itself was broken. There were also reasons to buy this theory: Harry Kane is clearly not who he was during the 2017-18 season. Danny Rose has, likewise, declined athletically. Harry Winks is poor, Eric Dier has regressed, Jan Vertonghen has regressed significantly, and a number of other regular starters, like Lucas Moura, Moussa Sissoko, and Davinson Sanchez, have some fairly significant gaps in their game—Moura’s passing is poor and he often has poor judgment on the ball, Sissoko is not good at kicking the ball, and Sanchez struggles to play a high line. When you combine all of that with the injury struggles of Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso as well as Eriksen’s utter lack of interest, what you’re left with is a squad that is alarmingly dependent on Toby Alderweireld to hold the defense together and Son Heung-Min and Dele Alli to be the non-tragic attacking options. And that, it turns out, leaves you with a non-existent margin for error.
This was much the bleaker theory, but it was also defensible.
And now six weeks into the Mourinho era I think it is the correct one. This is a broken team. Here is a probable best XI, given Mourinho’s apparent preference for where to play different players:
Aurier, Alderweireld, Sanchez, Vertonghen
Lo Celso, Dele, Son
The bench includes Juan Foyth, Danny Rose, Ben Davies, Moussa Sissoko, Harry Winks, Lucas Moura, Christian Eriksen, and Erik Lamela.
So let’s break that down. We’ll group them by three tiers. Tier 1 is for obvious Champions League-caliber players who could feature regularly for most elite clubs. Tier 2 is rotation-level players for borderline Champions League/Europa League teams. Tier 3 is players not even at that level.
In 2017-18, you could rank the key players in Tottenham’s squad this way:
- Tier 1: Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min
- Tier 2: Rose, Davies, Aurier, Sanchez, Kieran Trippier, Dier, Victor Wanyama, Sissoko, Lamela
- Tier 3: Foyth, Kyle Walker-Peters, Harry Winks, Fernando Llorente
Now let’s run it for the 2019-20 vintage. How many of our players do you honestly think could play for a locked-in Champions League caliber team? This is my list.
- Tier 1: Alderweireld, Ndombele, Lo Celso, Dele, Son
- Tier 2: Lloris, Vertonghen, Eriksen (obviously Eriksen could jump back to tier 1 very quickly at his new club), Kane, Aurier, Sanchez, Sissoko, Lamela
- Tier 3: Foyth, Rose, Davies, Dier, Winks
That’s a lot of decline to have happen all at once in one squad. But that seems to be what has happened at Spurs. And when you recall that of the five obviously still elite players in the squad, two are new arrivals who have struggled for fitness, one began the year with a contract dispute hanging over his head, and one has been suspended for long chunks of the season, you can understand why the results have been what they’ve been.
So what is the fix? It seems to me that Spurs should be in the market for defenders in all three roles, a defensive midfielder, and two wingers/strikers. If the team could be turned over such that Kane, Aurier, Sanchez, and Sissoko were regular bench players while Vertonghen, Eriksen, and Lamela have left the club, then you can probably imagine this once again being an elite club. Certainly the thought of Ndombele paired with a solid defensive midfielder and playing behind a front four of Lo Celso, Dele, Son, and a new center forward is intriguing.
But, of course, that assumes that Spurs can identify and sign top-level replacements. And traditionally Daniel Levy has struggled to successfully turn over a large portion of the squad in only one or two transfer windows—and that will only get harder if, as looks likely, Spurs will have to rebuild next year without the promise of Champions League football next season.