After Tottenham’s gritty draw at Arsenal in September James Maddison argued that his new team were shedding their old reputation.
“Fans and neutrals talk about Tottenham, they often say ‘soft, weak, bottle it, Spursy, all that rubbish’,” he said. “I think the last couple of weeks shows we might be going in a slightly different direction.”
Reports of Spursyness’ death are greatly exaggerated and the amnesty lasted all of 63 days. It was Roy Keane who drew for the dreaded adjective after the home defeat by Aston Villa. “Really poor defending from Spurs,” he said on Sky Sports of Ollie Watkins’ winning goal for Villa. “You’ve got to get tight and be aggressive, they’ve just switched off at the wrong time. Lovely goal from Villa, but defensively from Spurs... really Spursy.”
Keane had a point but did not care to mention the mitigating factors. This was a foreseeable defeat when looking at Spurs’ list of absentees. Maddison, Yves Bissouma, Ivan Perisic, Richarlison, Ryan Sessegnon, Manor Solomon, Micky Van de Ven and Pape Sarr are all injured, Cristian Romero was still suspended. Rodrigo Bentancur only lasted half an hour, hurting his ankle in a challenge with Matty Cash.
After winning the first three Premier League manager of the month awards available to him, the honeymoon is not just over for Ange Postecoglou and his new partner. Instead they have returned home to mountains of work, argument-inducing admin and a sullen Irish bloke passing judgement on the cleanliness of their house.
Scholars of Spursyness will be intrigued by Keane’s deployment. It is not traditionally used to describe discrete acts of defending, more as a label for glimpsing victory and contriving to throw it away. There was plenty of that too on Sunday, especially in a breakneck opening 20 minutes when the game might have been out of sight. Son missed a sitter then posts were hit, a goal was disallowed. It felt there for the taking with a stadium cruising on vibes. Yet Villa emerged with the points and by the end that felt rather predictable.
If we must give credence to such things, the xG was marginally in Spurs’ favour: 2.09 to Villa’s 1.77. Really, given the strictures placed on Postecoglou’s selection, this is quite an achievement. As was his assessment after the game, refusing to lean too heavily on mitigating factors.
“It might take a little while, but we’ll get through it and as long as we show the same intent and play the football we did today, I’ve got no doubt when we come out the other side we’ll be a very good football team,” he said.
“I mean some of the goals we could have scored would have ended up being showreels for us in the way we want to play our football, so for me the positives definitely outweigh the negative of the result.
“We’ve just got to make sure the players stay focused on what’s important right now and you need to win games of football to keep yourself in the mix to be in a strong position come the end of the year, but right now we’re still building a side.”
That patched-up and under-construction side face a daunting trip to Manchester City next Sunday. A month ago that looked like a fight between potential title rivals, now it has the feeling of damage limitation. Season-derailing runs can accumulate quickly in the Premier League and after starting with 10 unbeaten, this was Spurs’ third defeat in a row.
In such challenging spells once-winnable games become frightening. David Moyes’ West Ham are next at home and have won four from their last five in all competitions. Newcastle follow and will likely be favourites. Then a trip to Nottingham Forest, who beat this impressive Villa team earlier in the month.
Siege-mentality Everton follow at home, then Brighton away. No easy games at this level, of course, but it is not until Bournemouth at home on new year’s eve that you can see the sort of game you would choose in Spurs’ current situation.
For now there is enough goodwill towards what Postecoglou has accomplished already to avoid spiralling but if this winless run stretches into winter the mood will chill. Ardiles-esque team selections will lose their appeal with many more defeats.
There is often an early-season success story whose October league position looks curious in retrospect. The major challenge for Spurs now is to avoid this fate.