There is no disguising what happened to Tottenham Hotspur at The City of Manchester Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Spurs’ defeat at the hands of a Manchester City team that has otherwise blown hot and cold a little this season was as comprehensive as any in the Premier League this season, and it’s not impossible to see both the result and the performance as having something of a symbolic feel to it. From the very start of this season, Andre Villa Boas’ team has had the air of one riding its luck about it. Wins have had a tendency to be by a single goal, which hints at the thin margins between victory and defeat at the rarefied altitude at the top of the Premier League, whilst defeats have had a crushing feel to them. A narrow loss to Arsenal before it became apparent that Arsene Wenger’s fine tuning had built a team capable of seriously challenging for the league title. A three-nil defeat in the derby that isn’t a derby except it is a derby against West Ham United. Another home loss, this time against the sporadic basket cases of Newcastle United. And then, of course, there was last Sunday’s calamity.
In an ideal world, perhaps, it might have been possible to write the Manchester City defeat off as a bad day at the office against an outstanding opposition who clicked over the course of the ninety minutes, but football culture doesn’t really do forgiveness these days. That Spurs remain four points from second place in the table – a position in which they haven’t finished a season in half a century – becomes an irrelevance when the eyes and ears of everybody are tuned on the last result and the next match and a considerable amount of attention is being paid to the releative irrelevancy of the fact that the club is now in ninth place in the Premier League table. As the final whistle blew on Sunday afternoon, daggers were being drawn from their sheaths. With hackles now having risen, the AVB Out Express is already giving the impression of becoming a vehicle that is careering out of control.
Yet Spurs’ reasonably encouraging start to the season – results, if not performances, were tentatively encouraging until the West Ham defeat at the start of last month – drew something of a veil over the upheaval that the first team squad had gone through over the course of the summer. The departure of Gareth Bale may well have been somewhat unsettling (and the protracted manner in which it hogged newspaper headlines for almost the entire duration of the summer was in equal turns a little depressing, thoroughly boring and a demonstration of the full extent to which Mammon has its greasy claws stuck into what used to be a sport) but, in terms of disruption, the loss of one player is the loss of one player and no more. What was, perhaps, truly disruptive to Spurs’ summer was the arrival of a relative flotilla of new faces. Such arrivals, we might well expect, should take time to settle into a team and the manager might well require time to recalibrate the way in which his squad functions with all of these new arrivals. Time, however, is the one thing that Premier League coaches don’t have much of these days, as the Spurs manager is finding out to his cost this week.
The comparison with Arsenal is one that Spurs supporters would probably sooner forget, but the contrast that it is provides is an interesting one. Spurs’ North London rivals, pilloried by their own supporters over a degree of reticence in the transfer market that felt almost fetishistic at times, made one superbly-placed move during the summer. Manager Arsene Wenger seems, at the time of writing, so have finally been vindicated over his policy in this regard and The Emirates Stadium, so long a source of the mild grumpiness that comes with not winning trophies but not struggling enough for anything to become a genuine “crisis,” is a happy place at the moment. At White Hart Lane, on the other hand, there is a growing feeling that The Bale Money mght have been frittered away on a scattergun approach to the transfer market which may even have done more harm to the overall well-being of the first team squad than doing nothing at all might have done.
And when it comes to playing the blame game, of course, the manager will be held solely responsible for this failing, even though its failure – should this season end in failure, which is by no means pre-ordained just yet – is an institutional one with considerably more than one person being to blame for it. But the amount of changes that were made to the playing personnel at the club over the course of the summer should have hinted at the possibility of a rare signing of that most endangered of species, A Transitional Season (Latin name Tempi Davesextonus). Ambitions, however, were set high by the sheer amount of money that was washing through the club. Common sense shas a tendency to go out of the window in the presence of huge amounts of money, though, and so it is that the manager’s position is now on the line, just as the finishing touches are put to the Christmas edition of the Radio Times.
The press, however, is hungry, and once a manager finds himself in a familiar position of the football manager on the brink of losing his job. We’ve seen this all a hundred times before, but it feels Andre Villa Boas’ time at Tottenham Hotspur is like reaching a point when the critical mass of underperformance, media pressure and fan hysteria is starting to simmer. It feels like an aeroplane pilot receiving a stall warning – the point at which an aircraft’s speed drops to a level at which it can no longer stay in the air – its control column starts to shake violently and the best way for a pilot to work their way out of this life-threatening position is to angle the nose of the aircraft down, which picks up speed and helps the craft to pick up speed and pull itself out of said stall. It might be argued that the best reaction that the Spurs players could offer would be to come out of the last few days fighting, on the attack, determined to prove their doubters and knockers wrong. The problem with this is that Spurs’ next match is against a Manchester United side whose manager has come in for similar criticism of under-achievement so far this season, and on top of this David Moyes’ team put in by some distance its most accomplished performance of this season so far in the Champions League at Bayer Leverkusen earlier this evening.
Yet for all the doom and gloom hanging over White Hart Lane at the moment and with the prospect of a red, white and black painted steamroller – albeit it one that has been misfiring at times so far this season – there is plenty of room things to get a little worse this weekend before they start to improve – there is a silver lining at which Spurs supporters can grasp. The club is three points (taking into account goal difference) from one of the top four places in the Premier League table, and, as mentioned above, is four points from second place in the table. Andre Villa Boas is the manager with the second highest win percentage in the history of the club, and, whilst a trip to Norway to play Tromso in the Europa League tomorrow (Thursday) night has a feint whiff of banana skin, it does at least offer a team that has scored only six goals from open play in the Premier League this season a chance to regain a little of its composure ahead of Sunday afternoon’s match. Composure, however, is in short supply in a Premier League days in which instant gratification is everything. The ominous sound of a stick-shaker fills the air at White Hart Lane, for now at least.
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