In what felt like a preseason friendly, Tottenham Hotspur had quite a shocker and an embarrassment in their opening match in the UEFA Conference League. Despite the lack of competition in the new European league, Spurs got somewhat of a more difficult draw being paired up against a Paços de Ferreira side that finished fifth in Portugal’s first division last season.
Despite being paired up against a side that played their first team and was clearly the more well-drilled side on the field, the expectation was/is for Spurs to waltz to the group stage of the tournament, needing just one victory across two legs against Paços de Ferreira.
Earlier this week, Nuno Espírito Santo had mentioned that none of the individuals who played in Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City would play in the UEFA Conference tie. Rather than bringing some of their heavy-hitters to have on the bench, Spurs opted entirely for a squad of youngsters and veterans on the fringe looking to cement their place in the first-team squad. The decision to do was the recipe for disaster, as Spurs never once threatened and looked extremely out of sorts.
Looking at the situation positively for a second, Tottenham’s starters put in quite a shift last Sunday and more than likely needed the extra days off ahead of their Sunday clash on the road at Wolves. However, Tottenham will need to call upon the calvary to assist in putting this Portuguese side away next Thursday. So while it is an embarrassing result, the odds are that Spurs will still go through to the next round.
For the purpose of this article, we will not talk in detail about Cristian Romero, Bryan Gil and Ryan Sessegnon as all three are basically going to be new to the first-team group for the upcoming season. However, each player looked rusty and played with a lack of cohesion among the rest of the team. Gil definitely stood out for his ball progression ability, though.
I also wanted to add a note on Giovani Lo Celso. While it was a tough task for Spurs’ most recognized player on the pitch given the new system and the youth players scattered across the side, this game may have shown that Lo Celso needs others around him for him to play up to his potential and that he cannot do it on his own in the middle. He is an important player that Spurs have high hopes for given that he can play in a variety of roles in the midfield, but Lo Celso will need to stay fit and contribute consistently.
Even so, for a variety of reasons, Tottenham’s first-team squad has serious concerns to consider as the team navigates a season where injuries and fixture crunches from domestic and European competitions will play their part.
Some players just have not shown they are good enough
First, yesterday’s match provides clarity and yet another example to show that some players are simply not good enough to play significant minutes in a ‘Big Six’ side and could potentially need a move away to get back to playing their best football. Harry Winks and Matt Doherty are two examples of that.
For Winks, it was once again another subpar performance for a player who has not put his best foot forward for quite some time now. Perhaps Winks’ saving grace is that Spurs are toeing the line of homegrown players. That, paired with the fact that he comes from the youth academy are arguably the main reasons he is still in and around the first-team squad.
In Doherty’s case, his form has never really gotten going at Spurs since coming over last summer. A beneficiary of playing in Wolves’ back-three system where they pushed their wingbacks forward, Doherty is just not a natural right back. Spurs have struggled time and time again in a back three, so there is a clear schematic misfit here with Doherty despite him being linked up with the boss that he boded so well under a few seasons back. With Japhet Tanganga surely passing the Irish international on the depth chart, the lack of options at the position are likely keeping Doherty at the club.
Another starter in this game that looked completely off the pace was Cameron Carter-Vickers. Out on loan six times in the past four years, Carter-Vickers slotted alongside new signing Romero and was all over the place. His positioning ultimately led to keeping Lucas Silva onside for his goal and a gaff of mishandling the ball later in the game led to a set-piece from a dangerous position for the home team to go up 2-0 in the tie.
Spurs are holding onto players for too long
Spurs have a situation where there are a number of players who have been linked to moves away yet still remain within the dressing room. Moussa Sissoko and Serge Aurier are two examples of that. The close friends have not put together a consistent run of performances for quite some time and both have indicated that they would like to pursue new opportunities. Granted, the decision to keep the duo could be attributed to Spurs attaining one of their higher-earning players in Tanguy Ndombele. This was a game that some may have figured both would be in the starting lineup. However, Tottenham simply cannot afford to play either player given their keenness of playing elsewhere.
An additional issue that may go a bit unnoticed is the lack of backup striker options. Given the high price tag to retain Carlos Vinícius, Spurs were wise to look elsewhere for their striker targets. However, it seems that once again Spurs do not have a reliable backup striker. This is not a criticism of youngster Dane Scarlett, who has performed admirably despite not being given many opportunities. But with the situation of Harry Kane continuing to evolve, Spurs would be wise to turn to another option before giving the 17-year-old such significant minutes. In Thursday’s game, Scarlett was never really given the service to create, but he and Spurs would benefit from another striker who has experience and can put goals away. Hopefully that can be addressed before the close of the window.
Kane, Ndombele, and the close of the window
Lastly, Tottenham have a severe crisis with Kane and Ndombele. Not only are these two of Tottenham’s biggest earners, but they were also expected to be two of the biggest cogs in the team. With how late it is in the window combined with the COVID-depressed market, Spurs basically have one bidder for Kane and they will more than likely not receive back the large fee they allocated for Ndombele two summers ago. Even if Spurs sell either player this summer, they will need to move quite quickly to utilize that money and bring new signings into the squad.
If the window ends and Spurs keep both players in the squad, you have to wonder if there could be an issue of either player’s hearts not entirely being there. As evident two seasons ago with Christian Eriksen, it can be hard for managers to rely upon players who have their sights set elsewhere. The same can be said for Sissoko and Aurier, too.
All indications have pointed to a sense of togetherness and harmony building within the squad under Nuno. With the difficult business decisions Spurs have to make (or not make) in the coming days, I am concerned that there may be a trickle-down effect within the dressing room.
These issues are not new and they have all become more and more impactful in the squad. In fact, these issues are arguably the main reasons why Spurs have gone from playing in a Champions League final to playing in the third-tier European competition against a Portuguese side that have not featured in a game in Europe since the 2013-2014 season. The window is winding down and the question marks are still present at Spurs. Who would have thought it any other way?