Spurs are sliding at speed and route back up is packed with obstacles
Fans from both sides at a game between two English clubs? Nature is healing. Delays on the Jubilee and Metropolitan lines on Cup final day? Nature is healing. Manchester City winning the League Cup, again? Nature is healing. Everywhere you looked on Sunday, English football was returning to normal. And there is nothing, perhaps, quite so familiar in English football as the prospect of Tottenham wondering where they go next.
If they still had hope in the final 10 minutes it was only because of the eternal truism that a side that have had dozens of chances and failed to score will inevitably then concede to the first opportunity they give up. But for Tottenham the chance never came: Opta may have recorded that Spurs had two shots to City’s 21, but you’d be hard-pressed to remember them. At least one xG model felt the need to go to two decimal places to get Tottenham above zero.
There was much talk about whether Ryan Mason had been too defensive, whether he had been mistaken to have his side camp around the edge of the box like a José Mourinho tribute act. In truth, it probably wasn’t by choice. Deploying a low block and being utterly outplayed can look very similar.
Not even the Chas & Dave numerology could save Spurs, and it’s going to be another 10 years till the year next ends in one – although increasingly it looks as though the superstition only applied in the 20th century. The onslaught of money has killed that, like so much else of the old football.
So where next for Tottenham? The Carabao Cup, really, was an opportunity to add a cosmetic sheen to the upheavals that have followed defeat in the 2019 Champions League final – the links between the two occasions underlined by the way Harry Kane stumbled about ineffectively in both having returned from ankle injury (and despite the obvious precedent of Madrid, this was by far the more understandable selection given how bad every Spurs player other than Kane has been for the past month).
Mauricio Pochettino had made clear in the buildup to that final that his squad had gone stale and needed major reinvestment; there was only so much he and his universal energy could achieve. There’s only so much negativity a bowl of lemons on the desk can absorb.
The grand new stadium, the most potent symbol of Tottenham’s elite status, was also the financial burden that prevented them remaining at that level, an irony inflated by the way the pandemic has meant it has lain empty for months. (And if the underlying logic of the proposed Super League is correct, and the future is the global fan watching on their apps, to what extent do vast stadiums matter any more?)
Failure to rejuvenate the squad cost Tottenham the manager who had done more than anybody to elevate them to that elite level. Pochettino’s reward for being proved right was to be sacked. In that context the appointment of Mourinho in November 2019 can be seen as a desperate gamble to try to reinvigorate a weary squad. It failed, as Mourinho increasingly does these days, as did the desperate gamble to try to reinvigorate a weary squad by sacking him.
So what are Spurs left with? The promise of two years ago has dissipated quickly. Kane and Son Heung-min, clearly, remain top-class talents, and Hugo Lloris, after a mid-season blip, has returned to form. But who else has played consistently well enough recently for a new manager to consider them indispensable? There have been flickers from Tanguy Ndombele; Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier had good finals; and Sergio Reguilón is popular, although he struggled at Wembley. Others may prosper in a happier set-up.
But Kane is 27 and Son 28. Both may be considering their futures, particularly if, as seems likely, Tottenham fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League. The great consolation for Daniel Levy is that he got both to agree contracts until they are 30: if they are to leave, there will at least be reasonable recompense – although quite what that means in a world in which Covid has hammered everybody’s finances is unclear.
Four miles to the south-west, Arsenal offer a grim warning of how quickly a club can slide, yet Tottenham seem to be following them step-by-step: investment in a great stadium diminishes revenue available to develop the squad, leading to a downturn in results and the departure of the manager who brought the success – although with Arsenal the manager was at least to an extent responsible for structures that looked increasingly outmoded. Tottenham, it seems, got rid of Pochettino because it was easier and cheaper than replacing half a dozen players.
But now there is still the need for half a dozen new players, compensation to be paid to Mourinho – and the toxicity he inevitably leaves to be cleaned up – plus the expense of appointing a new manager and his staff. The next appointment feels crucial. Tottenham could easily find that the next time a Super League is discussed, they are no longer invited.