“Lads it’s Tottenham” was Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous team-talk before Manchester United faced Spurs at home as was revealed by Roy Keane. “I thought please don’t go on about Tottenham, we all know what Tottenham is about, they are nice and tidy but we’ll f**king do them” said the Irishman two years ago during a question and answer session to mark the release of his autobiography.
‘Typical Spurs’, or Spursy as it goes– the club that consistently and inevitably failed to live up to expectations. A club that could generate all the hype and excitement but one that you could always bank on to spectacularly blow it and crumble back away to mediocrity; the dodgy lasagne of 2007, Manchester City in 2004, losing the fourth place qualification spot to Chelsea’s Champions League winners in 2012, bungling the Bale money, the recurrence of St Totteringham’s Day. That kind of thing…
However this season has seen Tottenham strive to shed that image under the resourceful Mauricio Pochettino who has forged an effective, young and vibrant side that, although pipped to the Premier League title by Leicester’s wonders, are set to keep company with the division’s elite for a considerable time.
However it appeared as odd just how intent they are to shift that perception when Pochettino tried to place a positive spin on his team’s conduct at Chelsea on Monday night when they not only ceded the title to Leicester but their discipline led to an impressive 9 yellow cards and a FA charge for failing to control their players.
“It is a good improvement,” Pochettino said. “I hear in the last few years that, in the past, Tottenham were soft but now, we start to show character. We need to manage it in a better way and try to win the title [next season]”.
The Argentine agreed his team crossed the line and perhaps he does have a point, but it leaves an unsavoury taste when he’s attempting to justify Erik Lamela’s stamp on the hand of Cesc Fabregas, Eric Dier’s terrible challenge on Eden Hazard or Moussa Dembele’s eye gouge on Diego Costa as a sign his team is toughening up.
Pochettino also stated that “if you want to win titles you need to show passion” but he will be aware that you also need to keep your best players on the pitch and in the case of Dele Alli, banned for swinging a punch at West Bromwich Albion’s Claudio Yacob, and now Dembele, Spurs are not able to do that until next season. In Dembele’s case, he will also be suspended for the first four matches of the next domestic campaign as on Friday afternoon the Belgian accepted a six game ban for his gouge.
Tottenham tried to use mitigation, such as Dembele’s clean disciplinary record since joining the club- he has only picked up an admirable 9 yellow cards in four seasons- to keep it at three games but it would not wash with the FA who, quite rightly, deemed a six game ban sufficient. Costa may provoke, exaggerate the contact and even indulge in such behaviour himself but gouging should have no place in the game.
It is hard to argue with the punishment and Dembele should know better as an international player of over 60 caps and at the age of 28 one of the more experienced heads in the Tottenham side.
Pochettino is also correct to say that these recent lapses of discipline will be valuable learning curves for his inexperienced squad, with an average age of 24 years and 295 days it is the youngest in the top-flight, as they mature and prepare for the test of whether they can remain in the group of genuine challengers to the title.
There will also be the fine margin between proving their resolve and a reckless loss of control, as Chelsea showed they can be coaxed into breaching last Monday, and Pochettino will have to harness that character to prevent them stepping the line with damaging regularity.
The suspensions of Alli and Dembele may be inconsequential this term, the threat of another St Totteringham’s Day looms but is unlikely with two games left and Arsenal facing Manchester City on Sunday trying to make up a 3-point gap, but the games with Southampton and Newcastle may indicate to Pochettino, knowing that he will start next season unable to call on the latter, just how important a cog the Belgian is to his midfield.
Only three players, Dier, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderwiereld have recorded more passes than Dembele in the Spurs squad and with a 90% pass completion rate he is their most effective distributor.
Dictating the play between offloading the ball and carrying it forward with his muscular frame and fine control, his total of 83 successful dribbles is bettered by only four players in the entire league, the 28 year old makes Spurs tick while Dier hunts the ball alongside him. Though Dembele can also put his foot in, his 104 tackles is the highest in the Spurs squad.
It may worry Spurs that without two of their three midfield charges, so excellent throughout the season, and without Dembele in particular, partnered with the setback of conceding the title race to Leicester, it may lead to the season being ended on the note of two fragmented and ponderous displays.
It would be dramatically out of kilter with all that has proceeded it and it may, whisper it quietly, let Arsenal overtake them. Another Spursy moment could have arisen through trying so desperately to shake off that moniker.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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