Tottenham played their best football of the season for a 30-40 minute stretch on Tuesday night before extending their losses to three in a row (which has never been seen before under Mauricio Pochettino) because sometimes that is just how football is.
The underlying mental weakness which Spurs and Pochettino have worked so hard, for so long to banish from the conversation surrounding the club crept back in, as three points as of 85 minutes became none by full time.
The discourse digs in deeper now. Is Pochettino’s head already elsewhere? Are the players still willing to invest? Has the system been found out? Is the project reaching it’s conclusion?
We can’t mind read but we can point to more tactical explanations and solutions. They are three-fold:
1. Mousa Dembele is a shadow of his former self. Tottenham started the season with two wins while making use of a three-man midfield of Eric Dier, Chrisitian Eriksen and Dele Alli. In these fixtures Dembele came on as a sub to calm the game down after the opposition began to press Spurs back but the opening trio still started brightly. The Belgian, though brilliant, just doesn’t have the fitness for full games anymore and it’s clear that Pochettino knows this through his use of Mousa this season in a deeper (and therefore less ground-covering) role.
Mousa the sub: 14.4 points per minute.
Mousa the starter: 12.2 points per minute.
If Pochettino doesn’t feel comfortable with the Dier-Eriksen-Dele trio, or Dele is out for much longer he can either look to Harry Winks – returning from a long term injury – or change up the formation to a 4-1-4-1 with inverted full-backs contributing to midfield. Speaking of which…
2. The Full-Backs have regressed. Selling Kyle Walker for Serge Aurier, Danny Rose’s fallout, and the inability of Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier to step up to levels beyond their own physical capacities have all taken their toll. What was once a strength has become a weakness. This is really only something that can be handled in the transfer market but Pochettino could at least look to youngster Kyle Walker-Peters for the time being.
3. Harry Kane is not the same. This is of course the scariest of the lot. Since missing out only two games at the end of last season with a repeat ankle injury Kane has looked a step behind his previous self. There is that chance he’s been Fernando Torres’d™ but equally he may just need time to heal – something that could be aided by greater rest.
Harry Kane 2018/19: 15.9 ppm
Harry Kane 2017/18: 18.5 ppm
The Twelve widget here also shows us Kane’s less goal-orientated role this season. An adaptation or a reflection?
Up next Spurs take on another club who took three promising points from Manchester United before falling apart. Brighton & Hove Albion’s start to the season has been intriguing. They had a summer window that received praise from every analytics nerd the world over but none of these new signings have fully broken into Chris Hughton’s XI yet.
Spurs will know what to expect from Hughton. A solid 4-4-2 shape in defence that will sit deep when it is the time to frustrate and press high when it is the time to scare.
They key to unlocking Brighton’s defence will be in stretching them wide, a task Pochettino may be tempted to look to Son for. The gold medal winner is maybe even more exhausted than Kane though. As a result Spurs will likely have to ask the wing-backs to provide a dynamism and pace that often alludes them.