Well, that wasn’t fun. Tottenham Hotspur traveled to Portugal to face Sporting SC on Tuesday with a chance to take a pretty commanding grasp of Champions League Group D. After their scheduled match against Manchester City was postponed at the weekend, they even had a few extra days to prepare and head coach Antonio Conte was able to name what he thinks is his current first choice XI without rotation.
Instead, Tottenham laid an egg in Lisbon. Spurs conceded two injury time goals in the second half, generated precious little in terms of offense, and farted away the match, losing 2-0 and making the forthcoming matches against Eintracht Frankfurt basically must-wins.
Here are four things we learned after this match.
When Son and Kane struggle, Spurs struggle
It feels obvious, but this match also puts a pretty fine point on it — this particular Tottenham squad is only as good as its’ vaunted front line. In particular, leaving out Richarlison for a second, Spurs’ chances hinge on the performances of Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane. Sonny’s poor performances are a known commodity at this point; he has yet to put in anything more than a baseline decent performance this season and hasn’t scored, so it’s unfortunately not a surprise to see him struggle again against Sporting. But this was also a terrible performance by Harry Kane, who looked off his feed — bad passing, uninvolved, few shots, uninspiring.
So far this season has basically been "what if Spurs, but Son was bad". Today it's been "what if Spurs, but Son AND Kane were bad" and yes, it's clearly a big drop-off.— Jack Pitt-Brooke (@JackPittBrooke) September 13, 2022
Richarlison and Kulusevski (already!) playing significantly better than them.
Tottenham’s exceptional run of form at the end of last season was directly due to both Kane and Son clicking at the right time. That may (and likely will) happen again this season, but it certainly isn’t now. While Richarlison had a goal (correctly) called back for being offside, the truth is that Spurs do not have the bench talent to offset both Son and Kane being bad. And especially not when Conte decides not to try anyone else in their positions.
Which brings me to...
Conte’s reluctance to use subs is annoying and frustrating
One sub. One measly sub. I don’t know why Conte is so hesitant to use the players on his bench, but for me it’s progressed past the point of a cute quirk and to the point where I believe he’s just being stubborn. You can certainly argue (correctly or not) that an underperforming Kane and Son are better than bringing on a player with a lower potential, but Spurs looked exhausted in the tail end of the match. Sometimes fresh legs are as important as a player’s overall ability, especially in a match like this one where it remained tied until extra time.
Maybe, if Conte used all his subs, Spurs still struggle. Maybe they even still lose! Lord knows they didn’t deserve more than a draw in Lisbon. But in a season where proper rotation is going to be essential for Tottenham to progress deep into all of their competitions, it’s hard to fathom why Conte seems so reluctant to look to his bench for any sort of spark or energy. And for those players on the bench, they must be asking themselves what they have to do to get a chance to impress their gaffer.
Or, to put it another way, why did we spend all that money to improve the team’s depth this summer if Conte only trusts 12-13 players?
We spent £125m on depth and Conte still hates his bench— Dustin George-Miller (@dustingm) September 13, 2022
Marcus Edwards is proving Spurs wrong
A lot of words on this very blog have been written on Marcus Edwards, his promise while a member of Tottenham’s academy, his struggles with authority, and his perceived maturity issues as a teenager. Edwards was compared to Lionel Messi by Mauricio Pochettino, but Marcus seemed to struggle under the weight of expectations and had a couple of really bad loans. Tottenham sold him to Vitoria Guimaraes six months before the pandemic started and he joined Sporting this summer.
He’s been on a tear since joining, and has already scored three goals for Sporting including a goal and assist in the Champions League win over Frankfurt. He nearly scored an incredible goal in this match after beating Eric Dier on the dribble (twice!), playing a give-and-go with a teammate, and forcing Hugo into a very good save to keep him out.
I’m certain that playing against the club that didn’t believe enough in him to keep him there added some motivation for this performance, but it’s hard not to think that he could’ve been the young, dribbly attacker that we wanted when we signed Bryan Gil last summer. I’m certain he’s not done scoring in this competition, and despite everything I wish him well. In fact, while I think the ship has already sailed, I wish Spurs had gone back in for him this past summer. (But at 5’4” he’s probably too short for Conte.)
This was an opportunity squandered
A win today would’ve made Group D Tottenham’s to lose. A draw today would’ve given both Spurs and Sporting 4 points in the group and released some of Tottenham’s pressure heading into two back to back matches against Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt. Now, Spurs go into the next two matches against Frankfurt with their margin for error pretty much erased. Spurs still can progress out of this group by taking at least six points in the remaining fixtures, but this made it unlikely that they’ll be able to comfortably rotate later in the group stages.
Tuesday’s match continued Tottenham’s recent run of form where they look solid defensively (on balance) but struggle progressing the ball and putting it into the net. It’s Spurs’ first loss since April 19, but “unconvincing” continues to be the overall tenor of Tottenham’s performances this season. Something needs to change, whether it’s Spurs’ players figuring out the system, Conte making a tactical adjustment, or new players coming in and making the starting position their own. Spurs may be a point from top of the Premier League right now, but it feels like their results are outpacing their performances, and if they continue to play the way they did today, they will lose more games.