It was all so good just four months ago. Back then, Tottenham were in the midst of their best Champions League run ever, beating Manchester City and Ajax on consecutive last-second magic tricks and getting ready to face Liverpool in the final. What a difference four months can make.
At the start of the present season, Spurs have been in their worst form since manager Mauricio Pochettino joined in 2014 and kick-started this run of theirs. The nadir came this past weekend in the form of an embarrassing 3–0 loss to Brighton. That loss dropped Tottenham down to ninth in the Premier League table, behind the likes of Burnley and Crystal Palace.
Even their league form doesn’t speak fully to Tottenham’s recent malaise. Bayern Munich whomped Spurs by a lopsided 7–2 score in London last week, which was the club’s second poor Champions League outing after a tough 2-2 draw against Olympiacos. The problems are distressing and pervasive, and it’s unclear who is to blame and how to fix it.
When assessing Tottenham’s troubles, there’s no better place to start than with Harry Kane. Since going down with a ligament injury in January, Tottenham’s talisman has been nowhere near his best, which once made him arguably the best striker in the game. Kane’s raw stats look fine: five goals, one being a penalty, and one assist in eight matches. But dig a little deeper and the issues become clear.
Kane is only getting off 3 shots per 90 minutes, more than an entire shot below his career average of 4.1, and good for third on the team behind Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura (via WhoScored). His advanced stats are even worse. Understat has his non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes at .37. That’s quite a dip from the 0.55 average he’s managed since his breakout 2014-15 season, and is almost half of the 0.71 average he put up during his career-best season in 2017-18. It’s looking more and more likely that all those leg injuries over the years have sapped Kane of the deceptive speed and quickness he once used to such devastating effect when finding spaces to shoot from, and we may not see that peak-era Kane ever again.
In Kane’s defense, it’s not like his teammates are feeding him a constant stream of great chances. One of Tottenham’s most concerning problems is how the team’s creative players have let them down. Christian Eriksen has been particularly disappointing in this department. The Danish puppetmaster has had his strings cut this season, with just one goal and one assist to his credit so far. Both Eriksen and Tottenham would’ve preferred for Eriksen to be playing for a different team right now, but the transfer the two parties were pulling for failed to materialize.
Even so, Spurs planned wisely for their post-Eriksen future in the summer, and assembled a team that shouldn’t need to rely on the Dane for all their creative impetus. However, injuries to Dele Alli and new summer signings Giovani Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele have limited the involvement of the three guys Tottenham must have assumed would take most of the weight should Eriksen have left.
In spite of all those troubles going forward, Tottenham’s attack has probably been better than their defense. Nobody on that side of the ball has been doing very well. Jan Vertoghen has been an outcast recently, Toby Alderweireld has noticeably slipped from his usual excellence, and all their full backs have disappointed.
And then there’s Hugo Lloris. The stat floating around is damning enough: ten errors leading to goals dating back to the start of the 2016-17 season, tied for most in the Premier League. For a goalie once considered one of the world’s best, Lloris’ penchant for boners makes it impossible to include him amongst the elite in his position. One such boner gifted Brighton their opening goal last weekend:
To add injury to insult, Lloris landed awkwardly on his arm when falling to the ground while committing the above error and dislocated his elbow. He’ll be out at least until January.
While a poor start to a young season isn’t necessarily something to panic about, the fact that this current form actually stretches back to the end of last season makes it all more genuinely worrying. In their past 20 EPL matches, Tottenham have collected only 22 points. According to reports, some of this underperformance stems from the mostly unavoidable fact that, in locker rooms as in life, familiarity can breed contempt.
The core of this Spurs team has been together since Pochettino joined in 2014. That’s a long time in modern soccer, and it shows. An article in the Athletic quotes one dressing room source who spoke about the discord inside the team:
The players are not revolting against [Pochettino], but they have been driven so hard, they don’t know if they have got anything left to give.
A different source put it more bluntly:
The place is a regime and [the players are] sick of [Pochettino]. It’s his way or nothing, there is no balance. The players don’t get the impression they are trusted at all.
Pochettino isn’t the only figure sources inside the dressing room have taken issue with, per the Athletic’s article. Despite spending this summer for the first time in nearly two years, the Athletic’s sources claim the players are still fed up with the lack of transfer activity in recent years, pointing at the club’s notoriously frugal chairman, Daniel Levy, as the culprit. One source went as far as to call Levy “the Mike Ashley of the top of the league,” referring to the widely loathed owner of Newcastle.
Tottenham still have enough talent on hand to turn things around and regain their position as the third-best team behind Liverpool and Manchester City. However, with all of this turmoil, the constant rumors that Pochettino might be tempted to take over at Manchester United or Real Madrid soon, and with long-time stalwarts like Eriksen, Alderweireld, and Vertonghen on the verge of leaving the club on a free after this season, it looks like the sun is finally setting on what has been a spectacular era. Tottenham’s future could very well be just as bright as the present, and it also could easily include Pochettino, this time armed with the entirely fresh batch of players he’s been agitating for—likely with this very concern in mind—for years. But what’s becoming more difficult to argue is the idea that whatever does come next for Spurs, it will look a whole lot different than what came before.