It felt like a corner had been turned and the sense of relief in the Tottenham dressing room was palpable. Down to 10 men at home to Southampton on Saturday and with the score at 1-1, they dug deep, found a lovely goal from Harry Kane and closed out a 2-1 win. What was glossed over in the post-match analysis was that Southampton have not exactly been prolific scorers under Ralph Hasenhüttl but never mind. Spurs had shown much-needed guts.
On Tuesday night against Bayern Munich, Spurs ran screaming back down the alley of self-doubt. Their second-half capitulation to a 7-2 Champions League defeat on their own pitch was shocking and yet the catalyst was familiar and, as such, deeply worrying. Spurs had more than held their own in the first half and, at 1-1, could legitimately claim to have been the better team.
Then Robert Lewandowski zeroed in on a loose ball in the 45th minute, took a touch, spun and rifled low past Hugo Lloris, meaning that Spurs departed for half-time with a sense of regret, of deflation. They could not get over it. What momentum they had was gone and they would be dragged down.
The same thing had happened twice in September, first at Arsenal and then at Olympiakos. In the former, Spurs led 2-0 only to concede to Alexandre Lacazette in the 45th minute, which precipitated a second-half slide to 2-2 – a result that could easily have been a defeat. At Olympiakos, they also led 2-0 and conceded just before half-time – to Daniel Podence in the 44th minute. Again, they were pegged back to 2-2 in the second half.
It is often said that the moments before the interval are the worst time to concede and there is an element of the adage becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mauricio Pochettino and some of the Spurs players have specifically mentioned the timing of these goals and how they have felt like such body blows, as if they partially explain away what has happened next.
What they have done is shine a light on the current vulnerability of this team, their insecurity, and it has been difficult not to link it to the atmosphere in the squad which, by Pochettino’s own admission, was colored by selfish agendas until the closure of the European transfer window on 2 September. Pochettino made the point last week that the right dynamic takes time to recover; it does not happen overnight. Will it ever return for this group?
As everybody knows, Pochettino is obsessed by the smooth flow of positive energy and the squad’s togetherness was a major factor in the run to the Champions League final last season. The downside is plain when it cuts the other way. It leads to unpredictability, inconsistency, and this has bedeviled Spurs of late. They played their best football of the season in the opening half-hour against Bayern and yet they would concede seven times in a home game for the first time in 137 years of club history.
Pochettino had called for a return of the high-tempo pressing that has characterized much of his tenure and it was there in the first half. It felt good. But Spurs have been unable to maintain the same intensity over 90 minutes all season and, when they dropped, the tide turned sharply. They looked physically and emotionally shattered in the closing minutes, when Bayern ran in three bonus goals to turn the defeat into a humiliation.
Why have Spurs lost their capacity to press for the whole game? Pochettino would say that it is down to tackling an unforgiving fixture schedule with essentially the same group of players. Of the three summer signings, only Tanguy Ndombele has been in the starting lineup.
Pochettino has lamented the impact of his “agendas” comment, feeling that the word carries more dramatic force in English than his native Spanish. But it still felt accurate given how at least six of the squad wanted transfers over the summer or were and remain in contractual stand-offs.
Four of them made up the defense against Bayern. Serge Aurier is on record as saying he had “decided to leave” only for it not to happen. Danny Rose was left out of the tour to Asia so he could find a new club. Nothing materialized. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are in the final years of their contracts and the question is not so much if these players retain the motivation to perform at their highest levels but whether Pochettino continues to trust them 100%.