As Jesus Navas burned off Jan Vertonghen to burst into the box and sweep the ball past Hugo Lloris for Manchester City’s sixth goal of the afternoon, it was impossible not to cast minds back to the same fixture in the previous two seasons. Narrow last-gasp winners – Mario Balotelli’s penalty in early 2012, and Edin Dzeko’s winner a year ago – gave City victory over two Tottenham sides who had run the Sky Blues agonisingly close.
This was the year, after spending over £100 million in the transfer market, that Tottenham were supposed to bridge that narrowest of gaps. Even after losing a certain Welshman to Real Madrid, it is laughable to suggest that the squad at Andre Villas-Boas’ disposal yesterday was weaker than those of previous years. Expensive upgrades have been made in virtually all areas of the pitch. Players of the calibre of Etienne Capoue and Nacer Chadli were left out of the match-day squad entirely. Record-signing Erik Lamela was making his full Premier-League debut.
And yet, Spurs have never looked further away from beating City. Only once before have they been so humbled in the Premier League era. There were no dubious refereeing decisions. No red cards. Tottenham were simply outclassed in all departments. The final score reflected the kind of domination that City might save for the likes of relegation candidates. Instead, they swept Spurs, and the North London club’s title ambitions, firmly down the drain within ninety minutes.
The finger of blame points to a catalogue of sources. First of all, the players. The eleven who were selected by Villas-Boas frankly embarrassed themselves. ‘Keeper Hugo Lloris made a mockery of those lauding his early-season form. Erik Lamela has still yet to justify what now seems a ludicrous sum that Spurs forked out for him in August. Talk of Michael Dawson being called up to Roy Hodgson’s England squad will firmly be quashed after a performance like that.
Andre Villas-Boas has to hold his hands up and admit that he got his team selection wrong yesterday. Instead of picking the in-form Vlad Chiriches in defence, he handed Younes Kaboul his first Premier League start in fifteen months. Awarding Lamela his first start in a game of this magnitude raised some eyebrows, given his lack of contribution so far this season, and particularly seeing as it came at the expense of the exciting Andros Townsend.
Tactically, AVB’s side have looked toothless this season. Roberto Soldado may have scored four goals, but only one from open play. Only Crystal Palace and Sunderland – the League’s basements clubs – have scored fewer goals than Spurs. Away from home, Spurs are set up to play on the counter. Once they fall behind though, as they found themselves within fourteen seconds yesterday, there simply is no Plan B. Given the embarrassment of midfield talent AVB has to choose from, there is no reason why Spurs can’t play better passing football than they have done so far this season.
That embarrassment of midfield talent – and on current form, I mean embarrassment in every sense of the word – is where Daniel Levy and Franco Baldini come into the equation. Tottenham’s chairman must take a portion of the blame for sanctioning the arrival of no less than seven new players, several of which were unnecessary luxuries. Equally, though Director of Football Franco Baldini’s wheeling and dealing abilities in the transfer market have been undoubtedly impressive, too many new signings, particularly in and around the midfield, where Spurs were not exactly lacking in talent beforehand, has left Villas-Boas undecided on his strongest eleven. If Spurs want to challenge for silverware and the top four, then the time for experimentation must come to end. Squad rotation policies have worked for other teams in the past, but given Tottenham’s influx of players, there is too little continuity in the side.
Conversely, the more experienced Manuel Pellegrini has shown exactly how to deal with a surge of fresh faces into the City side. Whilst his consistent selection policy has left some out in the cold, namely Stevan Jovetic, who is already looking surplus to requirements, Alvaro Negredo and Fernandinho have become part of the furniture in the City line-up. I have little doubt that Pellegrini’s squad is capable of ironing out their patchy away form and challenging for the Premier League crown this season.
Tottenham must now decide what kind of season they want this to be. Title-talk will surely end with defeat against Manchester United next weekend, if it hasn’t already. This now has to be seen as a season in transition for Tottenham. Gareth Bale’s brilliance papered over the cracks for Spurs last term. They are paying a heavy price this season. Until AVB can develop greater attacking fluency, and importantly, do so consistently, they can forget about the Champions League too. He has an abundance of talent to choose from. Now, he must form a spine to his team. Baldini can help by keeping his fingers away from the trigger. Panic-buying in January would do nothing but throw fuel to the fire. Likewise, Levy sacking AVB would further destabilise the club. This is a decline that started within the Spurs hierarchy. And there it must also be halted.