Tottenham’s 4-1 win at Wembley against Liverpool last October was one of those games that stays in the memory long after the final whistle. It wasn’t just the result, although that of course was part of it.
This was a game that brought together a number of strands, in effect ending Spurs’ Wembley hoodoo, laying Liverpool’s defensive limitations so bare that Jürgen Klopp claimed they would have been better off with him at centre-back and cementing Son Heung-min’s status as a crowd favourite.
But it also exposed something else, something that, understandably, wasn’t much commented upon at the time, something that is very hard to quantify, and that is a strange carelessness about Tottenham, a vestige of their Spursiness that Mauricio Pochettino is yet to expunge. Four-one up after 56 minutes, Tottenham switched off to the extent that Liverpool, without ever really threatening to get back into the game, ended up having more shots on target over the 90 minutes.
Three days later a similar laxity saw Tottenham toss away a 2-0 lead to lose to West Ham in the League Cup. The tendency to concede goals when seemingly in control, or at least in no particular jeopardy, would cost them severely in the Champions League against Juventus in the last 16 and Manchester United in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. It arguably cost them at Arsenal and at Manchester United in the league last season, and it cost them again at Watford two weeks ago, Troy Deeney’s equaliser bringing a wave of pressure that led to Craig Cathcart’s winner.
It’s a barely explicable glitch in a side that seem otherwise well-drilled and are clearly physically fit. It’s not even as though it always involves the same personnel. It’s just that Tottenham have a mystifying habit of letting in goals when there’s very little reason for them to do so – and it’s put them under pressure.
Last season Manchester City dropped only 14 points in the whole season; nobody who wants to challenge them can afford to be sloppy. Spurs have already dropped three; every one dropped knocks another chunk out of their hopes of mounting a challenge. But for Tottenham, it seems the issue is bigger even than that.
Promising as this squad are, they’re like a bicycle kept upright by their own momentum. As soon as there is a sense they are not moving forward, as soon as anybody pauses to wonder why they are paid so much less than peers at other clubs, and whether they will at any point actually win something, they are liable to topple over.
Exacerbating that danger are the entanglements of narrative. The fact that Tottenham did not sign anybody in the summer can be read two ways. Perhaps they have taken a bold stand against the modern obsession with the market, preferring to focus on keeping together a squad full of potential; or perhaps they are following the Arsenal paradigm and have had to retrench because of costs associated with the new stadium, a policy that leaves them lacking cover in certain key areas.
After the 3-0 win at Manchester United, it was the former argument that was prominent, particularly after Lucas Moura’s two goals. Of course they didn’t need more players; they just need to make better use of those they already had. But six days later, after the 2-1 defeat at Watford it was the latter: of course the players looked tired; how would they not, given the way the lack of depth to the squad means they have to flog themselves through game after game?
That’s a particular issue with Harry Kane, who has not looked quite himself since damaging ankle ligaments against Bournemouth in March. Such things are relative, of course: there were only two league games he didn’t start and in the six months since then, he has scored 15 goals, including the six for England that earned him the Golden Boot at the World Cup.
There are mitigating factors, not least the fact that for a significant proportion of that spell he has played alongside another forward, meaning an alteration of role and perhaps fewer chances coming his way. Nonetheless, for somebody so prolific, a run of two goals in his past eight starts, even if they have come in his traditionally fallow month of August, is enough to raise questions – and particularly after a summer in which Tottenham failed to sign any cover.
And that, really, is the problem. Anything that goes wrong for Spurs will be perceived through the prism of their quiet summer, even if it is just a continuation of the carelessness that afflicted them last season. And that in turn is a dangerous explanation: nothing is more likely to persuade players beginning to wonder whether this bright young side have run their course than a sense that there are no resources for investment, that the new stadium has become a distraction or, worse, a drain.
At the moment, for Tottenham, it’s as though every defeat counts double, hitting not only their league position but also hacking at the foundations of a possible future. They really cannot afford any more carelessness against a Liverpool side that have perhaps replaced them as the Premier League’s emerging force.