Spurs have all the flair but none of the luck

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer - Ken Early

The last time Spurs had a big prize ripped from their hands by Chelsea, they couldn’t take it. When Eden Hazard’s equaliser looked like it would send the ti­tle to Le­ices­ter City, Spurs lost their heads in the style of a beaten Copa Lib­er­ta­dores fi­nal­ist. Their in­dis­ci­pline cost them a record nine yel­low cards, and a six-match ban for Mousa Dembele, who suc­cumbed to the gen­eral mad­ness and gouged Diego Costa’s eyes.

A year on we can say that Spurs at least are learn­ing how to handle these soul­crush­ing de­feats with more dig­nity. Con­sid­er­ing the sick­en­ing na­ture of the de­feat he had just ex­pe­ri­enced, Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino sounded like he was tak­ing it sur­pris­ingly well.

“If you play as you did today you can­not be wor­ried, be­cause I think you will give your best. Foot­ball today doesn’t pay what we de­serve.”

Away from the cam­eras Po­chet­tino must be wor­ry­ing that his team might never get what they de­serve. On Satur­day, they proved that they are a bet­ter team than Chelsea. Dembele and Vic­tor Wanyama dom­i­nated N’Golo Kante and Ne­manja Matic in mid­field. Harry Kane and Dele Alli scored bril­liant goals. And yet in the end Spurs had been beaten, with four goals con­ceded, by the side who will prob­a­bly also beat them to the league ti­tle.

Mis­lead­ing ta­ble

Spurs are the best team in the league, just as they were the best team last sea­son, when they fin­ished third. Peo­ple say the ta­ble never lies, but they are al­ways peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand the con­cept of sam­ple size. When you play only 38 games, luck has a huge in­flu­ence over where you fin­ish in the ta­ble. This will be of no con­so­la­tion to these Spurs play­ers if they keep miss­ing out on the ma­jor tro­phies. No fu­ture folk­lore will hon­our the great tro­phy­less Spurs side of the late 2010s, “The Un­lucky Ones”.

Po­chet­tino only used the word “luck” one time in his press con­fer­ence, re­mark- ing that it was un­lucky that Tot­ten­ham had con­ceded a goal from the only cor­ner they faced, while fail­ing to score from any of the 11 cor­ners they won them­selves. In­stead, the word he chose to sum up the dif­fer­ence be­tween the sides was “clin­i­cal”. Chelsea were clin­i­cal, Spurs were not.

One of the things that makes Po­chet­tino a good man­ager is that he acts as though luck does not ex­ist. He prefers to con­cen­trate on the things he can con­trol and he seeks to con­vince his play­ers that their des­tiny is en­tirely in their own hands. Ear­lier in the week, he had been talking about how ex­cit­ing it was to be at Tot­ten­ham, em­barked as they were on a great project of ex­pan­sion and evo­lu­tion.

“Tot­ten­ham is not build­ing now in an ar­ti­fi­cial way. It is not about put­ting in money, money, money, money and build a fan­tas­tic sta­dium and fan­tas­tic team. Tot­ten­ham is very gen­uine, and it is a very nat­u­ral process, and it is so ex­cit­ing be­cause it is unique in the world.”

Po­chet­tino was mak­ing it sound as though suc­cess would fol­low for Tot­ten­ham like a nat­u­ral process, as a shoot springs up from a seed. Life isn’t re­ally like that. Des­tiny hinges on ran­dom de­tails.

Chelsea know this bet­ter than any­one. Some­one of Dele Alli’s age can­not re­mem­ber a time when Chelsea were not the dom­i­nant team in Lon­don. Yet 14 years ago they were on the verge of bank­ruptcy, in dan­ger of plung­ing down through the di­vi­sions like Leeds. A few miles away, Arse­nal were plan­ning a move to a huge new sta­dium that would per­ma­nently seal their sta­tus as Lon­don’s top club.

Then Ro­man Abramovich no­ticed Stamford Bridge as he looked down from a he­li­copter and de­cided to buy the club. Chelsea had done nothing to de­serve their good luck other than be si­t­u­ated close to Knights­bridge and Bel­gravia, the pre­ferred neigh­bour­hoods for rich Rus­sians in Lon­don. Arse­nal’s grand am­bi­tion had been thwarted by nothing more than the in­scrutable whim of an oli­garch.

Spurs have nearly suc­ceeded in put­ting to­gether some great teams over the last 10 years, but the prob­lem has al­ways been that they can­not con­vince their best play­ers to stay: Gareth Bale, Luka Mo­dric, Dim­i­tar Ber­ba­tov, Rob­bie Keane and Michael Car­rick all left for big­ger clubs.

Twists of fate

The new 61,000-seater sta­dium will help to con­vince Spurs play­ers that they al­ready are at a big club, but the mov­ing process has al­ready been com­pli­cated by ran­dom twists of fate. Ex­plain­ing why the ex­pected out­lay on the sta­dium had dou­bled to £800 mil­lion, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Donna Cullen re­vealed that the de­pre­ci­a­tion of ster­ling af­ter Brexit had added 20 per cent to cer­tain as­pects of the cost. Nothing ever goes as planned.

José Mour­inho has re­marked a cou­ple of times this sea­son that it’s more dif­fi­cult these days to man­age a club like Manch­ester United, be­cause the rel­a­tive fi­nan­cial gap be­tween them and the mid­dling clubs in the di­vi­sion is shrink­ing due to boom­ing TV rev­enues. In the past, Mour­inho said, United would plun­der a team like Tot­ten­ham for their best play­ers, gaining strength while weak­en­ing a po­ten­tial ri­val.

That may well be harder to do, but for now, man­agers of big clubs who want to tempt away Spurs’ best play­ers still have a trump card. They can tell play­ers like Kane and Alli that if they stay at Spurs, they will never win any­thing. There is only one thing Tot­ten­ham can do to change that, but first they’ll need luck to go their way.

One of the things that makes Po­chet­tino a good man­ager is that he acts as though luck does not ex­ist

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