I’ll be honest — my initial inclination for this article was to headline it “We didn’t learn a damn thing from Tottenham’s 1-0 loss to Antwerp” and shitpost photos of burning trash cans. It might have made some of you chuckle. It certainly would be easier to write!
But that’s not really fair. After a match like this one, it behooves us to try and look at this loss and see what kind of info can be gleaned from it. And there are a couple of important lessons to be learned a day after Tottenham went to Belgium and got their asses handed to them in an empty stadium.
1. Sometimes you just play bad.
Really, this is it. This is the big lesson. You can have the best team in the world, and sometimes you go out there and have a real stinker. It’s not like Tottenham are alone here either — Liverpool lost 7-2 to Aston Villa! Real Madrid lost at home to Cadiz! Shit happens, and to state the obvious it’s not much fun when it does.
We can analyze and reanalyze the performance. We can point fingers at individual players like Harry Winks, Davinson Sanchez, Gareth Bale, Ben Davies, or Dele. Certainly all of them contributed one way or another to what happened in Antwerp on Thursday night. Jose Mourinho certainly seemed to throw a decent percentage of his team under the bus, both with his substitutions and his comments in the press conference afterwards.
But the truth is the loss in Antwerp was a collective team catastrophe. Spurs actually looked halfway decent for the first quarter of the match before the wheels started to come off, but it’d be unfair to point at any one player in particular. The players who started had an opportunity to play well, and they didn’t. The “saviors” that came on as substitutes — Pierre Hojbjerg, Son Heung-Min, Erik Lamela, Harry Kane — could have turned the match around in the second half. They didn’t. This was a team, and Spurs played very poorly as a team. No one is more culpable than anyone else, and the team is going to have to collectively bounce back for this weekend’s Premier League match against Brighton.
2. Royal Antwerp is better than we thought.
We probably shouldn’t be too shocked. Despite a UEFA Club Coefficient rating of 144, Royal Antwerp are currently on top of the Jupiler Pro League standings and are unbeaten in their last ten matches. They were playing at home (albeit in an empty stadium) against one of the best clubs in Europe — this was their cup final, and they took advantage of a sub-par performance by Spurs and responded with a pretty amazing performance of their own. They came out with a plan to attack Spurs from the beginning on their home turf and while Spurs had chances, Antwerp had more. Lior Refaelov in particular impressed me quite a bit with his play on Thursday night. If you’re an Antwerp supporter, you’re feeling pretty good this morning, and you should — your team played a fantastic match against a very big club and flat out beat them.
Heading into the group stages, many people, including myself, expected LASK to be the surprise team in this group, considering the Austrian club’s surprising run in last year’s Europa League. But Antwerp are no pushovers. They’re 2-0 in the group stages thus far and are looking now like favorites to advance. I don’t know if Spurs’ players were looking past Royal Antwerp or not, but they certainly won’t be the next time they play in London.
3. Spurs really missed Tanguy Ndombele.
Jose Mourinho rotated heavily for this match, and gave starts and opportunities to a number of his players more on the fringes of the first team. But while he also played some established first teamers like Serge Aurier, Sergio Reguilon, and Giovani Lo Celso, one of the players who he left behind was Tanguy Ndombele, who has finally emerged this season as one of the first names on the team sheet. This match showed just how influential the Frenchman has been for Spurs’ midfield this season.
One of the things that stood out the most to me in watching this match was how difficult it was for Spurs to progress the ball through the center of the pitch. Part of that was the combination of Winks at the six combined with poor-to-mediocre performances from Lo Celso and Dele, but it did pretty starkly put into contrast how solid Ndombele has been for Spurs thus far. His press resistance and ability to progress the ball both on the dribble and with his passing has made a huge difference in how Spurs attack. His absence was pretty notable on Thursday, and it’s notable that Spurs have never looked especially great without him in the side. It’s something that Tottenham are going to have to address over the course of the season.