Tottenham Hotspur's 1-0 defeat at home to Fulham on Sunday was an unmitigated disaster for their hopes of finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League.
It was a bad result accompanied by a performance marked by lethargy and tiredness. 120 minutes on Thursday night spent chasing black and blue Inter shirts around the San Siro is as bad a preparation as you can have for a Premier League match. It showed at White Hart Lane, as a mid-table Fulham side, doing a competent job but without pulling up any trees, took candy off an utterly exhausted baby to leave north London with a victory.
From start to finish, there was a negative air around Spurs. The weather was grey and dank, the crowd in a state of almost embarrassed silence, the sort of quiet you encounter when someone in attendance has bad body odour and everyone else is too afraid to tell them.
Aaron Lennon was missing from the squad and will be out for some time, seemingly with a reoccurrence of the hamstring injury which he sustained in the 3-0 win at home to Inter, a bad start to proceedings. The team selection too was strange, with Jan Vertonghen and Benoit Assou-Ekotto, a centre back and a left back, playing respectively at left back and the left wing. After starting with two strikers in the defeat to Inter, a move which backfired disastrously, Andre Villas-Boas will come under some deserved criticism.
But Villas-Boas has got a lot more right than wrong this season, and the stinker of a week he and his players have had has shown just how much they’ve overachieved to be in the top four and top three for so long. Injuries have taken their toll. While Younes Kaboul has been replaced adequately, Sandro has been hugely missed, with Scott Parker an inferior replacement, both in winning the ball back and in initiating counter attacks.
Parker’s relationship with Mousa Dembele has been a poor one, neither getting the hang of the other’s game, the pair of them yet to achieve any sort of cohesion. Dembele playing in every game out of sheer necessity hasn’t helped, he looking as tired as anyone while Parker playing for the entirety of Thursday and Sunday’s games is baffling, especially with Tom Carroll looking so perky in his appearances as substitute. Lennon’s absence has deprived them of not only one of their main attacking outlets but also allowed defences to put more defenders on Gareth Bale, reducing his effectiveness. Lewis Holtby’s lack of game time recently is also concerning, given the talent he clearly possesses but which is currently not being utilised.
Up front, for only so long can a team score goals and win games without their strikers contributing. Emmanuel Adebayor has had a dismal season, lacking either confidence, desire or both. Jermain Defoe is yet to score in 2013 and looks to be severely lacking in confidence. A confident Defoe is a potent finisher and an asset to any side, especially off the bench. The current, lacking-in-confidence Defoe is as much as use as a one legged man auditioning for the role of Tarzan. He doesn’t help the midfield, link up play and only occasionally harries defenders like his teammates and coaches would like him to. Adebayor’s a better all-round player, but this season simply hasn’t performed well.
In recent weeks, Bale has made up for the shortage of goals coming from the strikers with a string of mesmeric strikes befitting of a footballing superhero. But occasionally even a superhero loses his powers, and against Fulham the Welsh Wonder, despite not playing on Thursday because of suspension, looked just as tired and deflated as his teammates. If any game proved that Spurs are not a ‘one man team’, this was it, as they barely mustered a shot all game and never got Bale in a position to weave his magic.
Of course, along with the on pitch difficulties, there is the psychology of it all. Tottenham have suffered late season collapses in the last two seasons and appear to be in the midst of one again. Tiredness is a big problem, not helped by a series of close, pressure packed games in recent months along with a long run in the Europa League. The sense of nervousness and anxiety that always exists in a bad spell of form is abounding again.
All these things collectively were too much for Spurs the last two years and this year may see the same story, Arsenal yet again finishing in the top four by the skin of their teeth. Their win against Swansea on Saturday would have been a big mental blow for a team already reeling from going two losses in four days.
For all the signs of another collapse though, there is still plenty of hope for Spurs this season. They’re four points ahead of Arsenal having played a game more, still enough of a cushion to provide some succour to Tottenham supporters. There is also now a 13 day break before they play again, allowing time for players to regain fitness and recover composure for the season run-in.
The break will see players go on international duty, though as always you can expect those with ‘niggles’ will stay at home rather than play for their country. While missing international fixtures is not to be condoned, you’d expect at least one Spurs player to search the internet for excuses Bart Simpson used to explain missing homework, so they themselves can avoid tiring trips abroad playing or sitting on the bench for their country.
And under Villas-Boas this season, with a lesser squad than in years past they have been a tougher, better organised, more resilient unit than they were under Boogieman Harry Redknapp.
That resilience, for the rest of the season, will be put to the bitter test.