To say Tottenham were resting on the laurels of their 14-game unbeaten run in the Premier League is a bit harsh. But cracks were starting to show before Sunday’s loss to Newcastle, the first of which was not putting a weak Arsenal side to the sword at the Emirates. Still, with underwhelming draws against Chelsea and West Brom in the rearview mirror, it looked like Spurs were primed for a return to winning ways, especially after thumping Monaco with a rotated squad in Europa League last Thursday.
But something funny happens when Newcastle comes to White Hart Lane. Two years ago, when Spurs were in a state of mourning, Tim Krul had one of the games of his life and kept a clean sheet as Newcastle beat an Andre Villas-Boas-lead Spurs, 1-0. Last season, Newcastle scored within 15 seconds of the second half kickoff and won 2-1 at the Lane. And then this weekend, Ayoze Perez scored a sucker punch with a crazy 93rd minute winner to end Spurs’ unbeaten run and cap Newcastle’s renaissance week.
But for Mauricio Pochettino and company, this loss is a welcome wake-up call. The team’s run had been filled with more draws than wins, and quite a few of them were games Spurs should have won. They should have put Everton, Arsenal, Liverpool and even Swansea away, and those silly dropped points against Stoke and Leicester from winning positions in August now look even more important.
Spurs had found a bit of a groove, just not a winning one. They felt too comfortable, too relaxed even on Sunday when they were up 1-0 and pressing Newcastle for a second. The drop off in the second half was noticeable, even though only five players started on Thursday and Sunday as opposed to eight against Qarabag before the Chelsea match. Newcastle counter-attacked with verve, quickness and efficiency, and put a Spurs side that looked too comfy to the sword.
The unbeaten run was starting to mask a slight dip in form, which is natural for any team combining the slog of a Premier League season with a European excursion. The pressing wasn’t looking quite as intense, and players that had found a rich vein of form — Erik Lamela, Dele Alli and Eric Dier — have had noticeable drop offs of late.
Are they getting tired? It’s certainly possible, since Pochettino hasn’t rotated as much as he probably should have during the Europa League. The recent dropped points have felt even bigger because of the performances of the teams ahead of them, notably Manchester United. If Spurs miss the Champions League again, these games might be the ones they end up regretting.
But, now instead of resting on the laurels of only losing three games in all competitions until Sunday, Pochettino can re-focus his suddenly larger squad. Nacer Chadli, Nabil Bentaleb and others are fit again, while Tom Carroll has made himself an option in midfield. Pochettino has selection questions, but in a different vein than he had earlier in the season when players like Alli and Mousa Dembele replaced those who were injured or suspended. Combining this with the extra motivation he no doubt has now that they’ve lost a winnable game, Pochettino can reset the team and tactics now that the unbeaten run is over.
Sometimes losses can teach a team something important about themselves. Spurs and their manager had been washed over with praise for their tactics, team selection, buying process, etc. Now they face some adversity, which every team does during a long campaign. The chance to respond and rebuke the criticism and the boos should be a welcome change for a team that needed to plug their ears to the praise from the outside.
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