What, all of a sudden, has gone wrong at Tottenham Hotspur?
An eight-day period between Sunday the 10th of March and Sunday the 17th, saw them beaten three times, and resemble a shadow of the team that only two weeks previously looked as though they could be threatening Manchester City’s second place in the table.
All teams (with the possible exception of Manchester United, whose efficiency this season has been almost robotic) experience ‘blips’ through the course of a campaign – it’s part of the natural order. But Spurs’ current plight could turn from a blip to a slump in the space of 90 minutes on Saturday, should they fail to get anything from their game at Swansea City.
In command of third spot only a few short weeks ago, Tottenham are now fourth, and being hunted down by their North London rivals Arsenal, who are four points behind, with a game in hand.
Last season, Spurs had a 10-point lead over the Gunners heading into late February, and were still pipped for third, ultimately finishing fourth, and being deprived of a Champions League berth courtesy of Chelsea’s unlikely triumph in the competition.
It’s not so much the results that will concern those associated with the club (although the reverse at Inter in the Europa League fell just on the acceptable side of humiliating) but the manner of the defeats.
At Anfield, Spurs were 2-1 up with 25 minutes remaining, and contrived to lose 3-2 – largely thanks to some defensive lapses that have been uncharacteristic of their season to date, but all too common in years gone by.
Against Inter, the team looked like a herd of deer that suddenly found itself in the middle of a motorway, and in the home game against Fulham, it looked clueless and bereft of creative ideas.
Many will point to the absence of Gareth Bale in Milan, and there is little doubt that his presence would have made a significant difference, and that, I’m afraid, will be (and should be) more of a concern to Andre Villas-Boas than a string of disappointing results.
The problem here may well be that as the media continues to refer to Tottenham Hotspur as a ‘one man team’ – Bale, who has scored 10 out of Spurs’ last 18 goals in all competitions, being that man – it appears as though some of the players are also buying into the premise.
Against Inter, for example, it looked as though the players, deprived of their customary outlet, didn’t know who to pass the ball to. On occasions, you could see them looking up, desperately seeking Gareth, finding him absent, and almost accepting that no one else would be capable of producing the necessary impact on the game, and therefore not worth passing to.
These are slightly worrying times for Spurs, and Saturday’s away day at Swansea has taken on a great deal of significance. It is, arguably, the biggest test of AVB’s managerial career at the club to date.
The Swans are comfortably mid-table, and will be playing in Europe next season irrespective of their final league position, having picked up the Capital One Cup – the first major piece of silverware in the club’s history.
Michael Laudrup has already secured an elevated status, and his men will go out on Saturday intent on enjoying themselves and displaying a brand of football that has often been a joy to watch this season. Free from pressure, with no immediate need or compulsion to pick up points, Swansea will go out to express themselves, and that could make them very difficult opponents indeed.
Andre Villas-Boas will be as aware of this as he will have to be of the need to pick his players up, and reinstall the confidence and swagger that characterised a December of last year when the side looked nigh on unbeatable. While there’s no doubting the talent of the team, with or without Bale, it is now, I feel, down to psychology as much as footballing prowess.
Should Spurs lose to Swansea, the alarm bells will be ringing with renewed intensity, and Spurs fans, with their customary pessimism born of endless frustration, will be shaking their heads ruefully and fearing the worst.
Not finishing in the top 4 this season is simply not acceptable for Tottenham Hotspur, and Gareth won’t be around to ‘bale’ them out forever. I would even venture to suggest that should Spurs not be featuring in the UEFA Champions League next season, Gareth Bale won’t be around at all. At least not wearing a Spurs shirt.
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