Tottenham’s top-four challenge seems to be over for another season - so what now?
Some prescient fans thought it was all over after the defeat at Old Trafford three weeks ago. It surely is now.
On a weekend when many of the results went for them, Spurs were unable to take advantage at Turf Moor and their top-four challenge looks to be over for another season.
The only hope of a heroic late charge into the Champions League spots lay in strong consistency over the final eight games - both in performances and results - but Tottenham failed on both counts on Sunday, falling at the very first hurdle after the international break.
Manchester City’s defeat at Crystal Palace last night leaves the Lilywhites seven points off the pace – eight if you add the goal difference. City travel to Old Trafford at the weekend while Spurs host Aston Villa, and Manuel Pellegrini’s side must still visit White Hart Lane so a small flicker of hope remains for the most optimistic supporters – but Spurs just do not look like they have the form, momentum or belief to pick up the necessary points, and Liverpool would also be lurking if City suffer a dramatic decline.
Mauricio Pochettino sounded like the season was over when he spoke after the match. Asked about Spurs’ prospects of finishing in the top four, he said: “We know that it’s difficult but we need to try to get the most points possible and fight to arrive as high in the table as possible.
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“I think this was a difficult season because we’ve played a lot. At the same time I think it’s been a good season because we can see a lot of players, a lot of young players have started to play in the first team – but we have seven games ahead and we’ll see what happens.”
His words speak volumes. One can only hope that he was a bit more upbeat and bullish about his team’s chances in the dressing room before the game, and during the half-time break.
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However, it did not look like his players really believed they were still in the hunt and that a victory at Burnley would really make any difference. They managed just two shots on target.
Pochettino bemoaned a “lack of patience” in possession, and the visitors did look too long too often with the ball spending a lot of time in the air, but there was also a painful lack of quality and, when Spurs did create chances or half-chances, they went begging.
Most comical was Paulinho’s scuffed effort in the second half, when he had a rare bit of time and space on the edge of the box and options for a pass. His shot was horribly executed, and it was truly baffling that he was on the pitch – both at the start and at the final whistle.
It would overstating Andros Townsend’s case to suggest that he has been banging the goals in all season, but the winger scored a confidence-boosting 20-yard strike for England against Italy in Turin last Tuesday and it seemed a no-brainer for Spurs’ head coach to take advantage of that lift by putting him in a Spurs shirt as quickly as possible.
Instead he opted for Paulinho, and moved Christian Eriksen out to the right-hand side for good measure, where the Dane was also ineffective.
It was a mystifying choice, compounded by the fact that Pochettino then left the unproductive Paulinho on until the end, while only introducing Townsend in the 83rd minute.
The head coach’s team selection was odd, while the lack of experience in the side was highlighted again as 21-year-old Kane wore the armband, becoming the youngest captain in the Premier League this season.
The irony is that, after their dreadful defensive displays and the goalfests against the likes of Swansea (3-2) and Leicester (4-3), it was not Spurs’ rearguard that cost them their place in the top-four fight. Instead, the killer blow came with a 0-0 draw.
If there is a positive to be taken from Sunday’s result it was that first clean sheet in 11 games. However, it came against the third lowest scorers in the league and no-one will seriously suggest that a Vlad Chiriches-Eric Dier axis at the heart of the defence is the way forward, or that Ben Davies – who stood in ably at centre-back in the second half after Kyle Walker limped off – should now be considered for the role regularly.
So what now? How can Pochettino draw some benefit from a series of fixtures which are likely to become increasingly meaningless?
He surely doesn’t need to see any more of Paulinho, or Roberto Soldado, or those who have fallen out of favour and appear to be on their way out this summer – the likes of Younes Kaboul and Etienne Capoue.
Instead there is merit in experimenting now, and Spurs need more tactical flexibility. But, as Pochettino has pointed out, the promising aspect of this season has been the impact of the young players, and now is probably a good time to test some more of them, rather than giving demotivated senior players a few more run-outs before their likely departures. Or, if not right now, then soon.
After all, Kane made his full Premier League debut against Sunderland on April 7 last year, scoring in three successive games and going into the summer break with a renewed confidence about his place at the club.
Instead of spending the next few weeks underlining why the season has seemingly fizzled out so early and who has underperformed, Pochettino can raise the mood by reminding the fans of the club’s homegrown talent and rewarding some of the stars of the academy with first-team appearances. Everyone will be keen to look forward, not back.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs