One of the reasons why we like league football is that it is relatively meritocratic. From only a few games in the season, the league table doesn’t lie. Setting aside aesthetic or moral arguments for a moment, few people argue that the Premier League leaders, Chelsea, have been the best team so far this season, or that Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur have been the worst. We have covered the various goings on at St James Park in considerable detail over the last few weeks, but what on earth is going on at White Hart Lane, where a club that is perenially picked as the club most likely to smash the hegemony of the top four has already been cast adrift at the foot of the table and appears set for a long, hard winter.
Tottenham seem, on the face of things, to have come undone due to a mixture of their own poor decision making and undue pressure from other clubs. Last season, what was striking about them was that, whilst they leaked a lot of goals, they scored a lot as well. During the summer, though, they lost their first choice attacking partnership (having sold the third part of that particular axis, Jermaine Defoe, in January), and whilst other areas of the team have not been particularly strengthened, the one area of the pitch in which one was reasonably certain that they were capable is now fundamentally flawed.
We can trace a time line here back to January, and the sale of Defoe. An able if lightweight striker, Defoe has, so far this season, scored as many goals this season as the entire Tottenham team has. Success in the League Cup masked continuing inconsistency in the league, and there was surprisingly little criticism when the club finished in the bottom half of the Premier League table. At the start of the summer, they lost Robbie Keane to Liverpool. Keane’s transfer wasn’t considered a great loss by Tottenham supporters. Keane, it was widely felt, needed fifteen chances to score each goal, and the £20m transfer fee being dangled in front of them seemed an opportunity too good to waste. Keane, who never quite fulfilled the potential that he showed when he was a teenager for Wolves in the late 1990s, has gone on to prove this with a goal tally of zero for Liverpool so far this season.
The second major transfer of the summer, however, dealt a crucial blow to their hopes for the new season. We’ll never know for certain that Manchester United tapped Dimitar Berbatov up, but their relentless pursuit of him was tasteless in the extreme. His sullen, petulant appearance for Tottenham’s opening matches of the season were a pretty pathetic display from someone who was still, at the time, being paid more per week than most of the club’s supporters earn in a year. The deal that was finally signed on transfer deadline day seemed like a good bit of business. £30.2m for a player who, thanks to Manchester United’s apparently completely innocent pursuit of a player under contract to a club without that club’s permission, didn’t want to be there any more. More importantly than losing one player, the whole saga must have had a devastating effect on morale in the dressing room, and meant that the club started the new season under a cloud.
In all areas of the pitch, their new signings have misfired. Giovanni Dos Santos has looked rather too comfortable in midfield, Heurelho Gomes has looked every bit as much of a liability as Paul Robinson did last season, David Bentley looks over-rated. Roman Pavlyuchenko’s signing looks like something of a panic signing, and the team is not gelling. In addition to this, Juande Ramos seems to have the idea in his head that the cups are more important than the league – he seemed to pick, if anything, a weakened team for last weekend’s match at Portsmouth, ahead of Thursday night’s UEFA Cup match against Wisla Krakow, a match in which Spurs hold a very narrow 2-1 lead. The cups have provided their only solace this season, along with their only win against English opposition this season, in a grimly apt 2-1 League Cup win in front of 20,500 half-interested supporters at St James Park against Newcastle.
To put it bluntly, Spurs need to pull themselves out of their torpor and quickly. It is possible that Hull City and West Bromwich Albion might not be as bad as many people thought they might be this season. The likes of Manchester City, who can usually be relied upon to really struggle and cause themselves problems when they have no need to, are now the richest club in the world. The time could be right for a club the size of Tottenham Hotspur to spend at least a season in the Championship, and at the moment they’re showing none of the signs of being able to pull themselves together. They’re almost a sixth of the way through the season already. Time may be starting to run out.