Spurs are out of the Champions League, and not for the first time this season the way in which they lost was as much of a problem as the elimination itself.
Has there ever been a team pitch up as ill-prepared for a major European match against a club with a rich history in this competition as Spurs did for their Champions League round of sixteen second leg against seven-times winners Milan? The problems have been mounting for weeks, and now they’re out of this, too. With no silverware to play for there now only remains a battle for a place in the top four which it already rather feels like they’re losing.
They’d escaped from the San Siro with a 1-0 defeat that might have been worse and followed that up with consecutive league wins against West Ham and Chelsea. But since then the yips have returned again, with a league defeat at Wolves and an FA Cup elimination at Sheffield United.
Of course, in the case of this particular club there’s more to it than what’s going on with the team on the pitch. Antonio Conte had his gall bladder removed, came back, was sent back home again, and now is back again. It’s still completely unclear whether he’ll still be with the club by the summer, and the issue of his contract has now been dragging on for so long that it feels as though the inaction over it says more than any public statements on the matter would.
And of course, opinion has been divided over Conte. The return of Pochettino might not work, but it’s what many want. In a broader sense, this season has felt sour at Spurs, and in a way that previous seasons haven’t. Spurs supporters can hardly be accused of being impatient. It’s been 15 years since they last won any silverware, almost 40 since they last lifted a European trophy, and more than 60 since they last won the league.
But this level of unhappiness feels different to previous seasons. Perhaps it’s the Arsenal effect. Perhaps it’s the soporific football they’ve played for much of last three years. Perhaps it’s a feeling that the new horizons implicitly offered by the new stadium have simply failed to materialise, now that the multi-event leisure complex has been completed. Perhaps it’s all of these factors, and more.
In an impressive display of pathetic fallacy for the recent mood of the club, it was a cold, wet evening in North London at kick-off, sleet mixing with rain in the air and the temperature not far above freezing, the wintry conditions matching the mood of a crowd that hasn’t been shy of sending a few chilling boos rattling around the internals of the Megadome at half-time and full-time when performances haven’t been up to scratch, recently.
And the first 45 minutes offered little to dispel the lurking feeling of futility over all of this. By the time we’d reached the thirty-minute mark, there had been four shots on goal, only one of which had been on target. Play had been pretty evenly matched, with neither side looking particularly likely to score.
We were nowhere near finding out who the winners of this match might be, and the eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted the problem with this. Spurs were the team who needed to win this match. They needed a 1-0 lead just to get to parity. To remain in the Champions League, not scoring a goal was not an option if they wanted to stay in the competition. Indeed, if they wanted any chance of getting through without a penalty shootout, they’d need at least two.
But a bitty half of football suited Milan better than it did Spurs, who played as though lacking confidence and with very little fluidity. Passing was careless, often running a couple of yards ahead of an intended target. Crosses were repeatedly overhit, and the back line still looked skittish when passing the ball around amongst themselves, like plate spinners in the process of realising that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
And it simply never really felt as though this Spurs team had a higher gear to move up to. Son Heung-min’s fall off in form has been much discussed, but Dejan Kulusevski hasn’t flowed since he returned from his injury. And bringing Richarlison on from the substitutes bench comes with the caveat that he’s only scored two goals for the club, and they both came at the start of September. Milan found being pawed at by Spurs to be something that they could withhold with ease. The half-time whistle was soundtracked by a smattering of boos.
The early stages of the second half were a little better, though Milan did force a real chance when Brahim Diaz’s low shot from close range was well saved by Fraser Forster. Pedro Porro replaced Ivan Perisic and almost immediately thumped a free-kick from a promising position straight into the middle of the Milan wall.
But Porro’s delivery did at least seem to improve Spurs a little in attacking positions. The free-kick may have been duff, but his crossing and passing looked like an immediate upgrade, and within a few minutes they’d created a couple of chances, Hojbjerg stinging the goalkeeper’s palms and Harry Kane diving for a header that flew a couple of yards wide. In acknowledgement that there was actually a cup tie there to win, Richarlison was finally introduced with twenty minutes to play. Within three minutes, he was picking a fight with the Milan goalkeeper for no obvious reason.
Cristian Romero was sent off for a second yellow card, fully deserved, and there followed an absolutely baffling substitution when Kulusevski was replaced by… Davinson Sanchez? There wasn’t anything to complain about over Kulusevski being withdrawn. He’d been largely ineffectual all evening. But replacing him with a more defensively-minded player when the team was ten minutes from elimination from a competition that the club has been so preoccupied with qualifying for in recent years was baffling to the point of being nonsensical, especially since Sanchez moved immediately into something of an attacking position.
There was a half-hearted shout for a penalty with a few minutes to go, but Spurs showed little in the final stages – a downward header that was excellently saved by Maignon – and Milan had the better of the chances on the break. Within seconds of Maignan’s save, they’d worked the ball to the other end of the pitch and substitute Divock Origi hit the post. When the full-time whistle blew, the boos ringing around The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium were unsurprisingly substantial.
And the ultimate question is an important one; if Spurs can’t get themselves motivated for a match like this, what exactly will they get motivated for? Because this Tottenham Hotspur is all fur coat and no knickers. They have all the trappings of A Big Club, but it’s built fundamentally on sand, not least in the appointment of a celebrity manager who now offers little in terms of entertainment and who doesn’t seem able to spark the players to life. Something needs to change at Spurs, but much of the recent history of the club suggests that even if that change were to be effected, they’d find a way of messing it up. Again.