April 23, 2017

LEE | Tottenham Must Exorcise Blue Demons

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When Mauricio Pochettino first arrived at White Hart Lane, Tottenham Hotspur was reeling. A summer of poor spending had left the club stocked with players that did not care about the badge on their chest nor the supporters in the stands, and a dismal series of performances followed.

Those losses included 4-0 and 5-0 decisions at the hands of Liverpool — the latter result which led to the the sacking of then-manager Andre Villas-Boas — a 6-0 thrashing by eventual champions Manchester City and three straight losses in the North London derby. Tottenham finished sixth in the league that season, with a pathetic goal difference of +4, the only club in the top seven that failed to achieve a double-digit goal difference.

The task that fell to Pochettino, then, was to shape up the club: an enormous undertaking by any standard. Many supporters remained skeptical of the Argentine, especially given that, despite promising spells with Southampton and Espanyol, he had yet to win any trophies in his managerial career.

Slowly however, Pochettino molded the club in his image. The intense pressing that Southampton had been known for became a staple of Tottenham’s defensive strategy. Players that were unable or unwilling to commit to this new, intense physical strategy were shipped out, while promising young talents such as Dele Alli and Eric Dier were brought in. Tottenham went from a team defined by its flimsy defense to the best defensive team in the league.

That is, of course, without mention of Pochettino’s influence on the other end of the pitch, with Harry Kane emerging as the best striker in the league and Alli becoming one of the most promising young players on the continent. Under Pochettino, Spurs went from flimsy have-beens to title contenders.

And yet, despite the development Tottenham have undergone under Pochettino, there is one barrier that has yet to be hurdled: trophies.

Tottenham won its last trophy back in 2008 in the League Cup, with its last league title back in 1962. For all their impressive showings over the past season or two, Pochettino’s side has zero hardware to show for it. They’ve come close — several times in fact — but have come up short each time. On top of that, it has been generally the same team that has denied them each time.

During Pochettino’s first season, Tottenham made it to the League Cup final, only to lose 2-0 to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea squad. Last year, it was by Eden Hazard’s boot that halted Tottenham’s chase of Premier League glory. And this season, it is Chelsea that are four points ahead of Tottenham in the title race, likely to relegate the Lilywhites to a second-place finish.

Saturday’s semifinal, then, will have felt familiar to Tottenham supporters. In many ways, it serves as a microcosm of Spurs under Pochettino. There were many encouraging signs, and progress of the team from when Pochettino first arrived was clearly evident: Tottenham was on top for long stretches of the game, dominating possession, having more shots and winning more corners. Yet, it is the Spurs who have nothing to show for their performance, while Chelsea moves on to a chance at trophy glory.

Much talk has been made of Spurs’ efforts to overtake bitter rivals Arsenal, but arguably more pertinent for Tottenham has to be its dual with another London team, as it has not been Arsenal that has so repeatedly denied Spurs of silverware. Pochettino’s project at Spurs has been both exciting and fruitful, but without any trophies to show for it, it will ultimately be forgotten.

Of course, there is still plenty of time. Spurs currently boast the youngest average age of their squad in the league at just under 26, and star players like Kane, Alli and Christian Eriksen are even younger than that. Still, there must be an air of urgency around the club.

Up to this point, Chelsea — the last English club to win the Champions League — has been a constant reminder to Pochettino’s Tottenham side what they have been missing. To truly announce themselves, then, Spurs must exorcise their blue demons, and show that they have what it takes to succeed on the biggest stage.