Under Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs have improved dramatically in so many ways, though there is still one area of performance that still feels like the old Spurs — performances away from home against the teams around them in the table. The performance at Anfield brought back nasty reminders of the flaws Tottenham still has, and how far they have to go if they really are going to be consistent title challengers.
After multiple knockout performances against big clubs at home, many thought Spurs could finally translate that form away from White Hart Lane. But in 2016-17, that elusive away form has been hard to find. Against the other teams in the top seven after 25 rounds, Spurs end the season with three draws and three losses. Unlike last season, in which Spurs won two games away from home against other teams in the top seven, Pochettino’s men never looked likely to win any of those contests this season, and often needed some good fortune in order to escape with a point.
In Pochettino’s tenure at Spurs, away against teams that finished in the top seven of the Premier League table, his teams have two wins, seven draws and nine losses in those games. In comparable home fixtures, Spurs have seven wins, five draws and three losses, with three games still to play against teams in the current top seven (Everton, Arsenal and Manchester United). So why does this staggering difference in form away from home versus at White Hart Lane continue to grow more and more pronounced with each passing game?
Like with Pep Guardiola, Pochettino wants his teams to play out from the back, even while under an intense press. Against teams that force the issue, such as United, Chelsea and Liverpool, this forces mistakes and catches Spurs out when normally they have such a good shape. Since Spurs play with their fullbacks as auxiliary wingers, they can be hugely susceptible to quick counter-attacks if they lose possession in the wrong areas, especially when they are playing a back four. Pochettino’s back five experiment had to be halted because of injuries, so it’s unknown as to whether that formational tweak would have made dividends against Liverpool, but the basic problem of Spurs not being able to break a press has held over from Pochettino’s first season still remains regardless of the formation. For a team that presses as well as Spurs have done and still do, it’s a bit shocking to see them fail to deal with a press as well as they should.
As with every team, Spurs do make mistakes in these big atmospheres and when they do, they’re often punished for them. However, that clinical nature that they themselves show at White Hart Lane never does not seem to travel with them, nor does that intense press that puts even the best teams to the sword. Is it because the White Hart Lane pitch is that much smaller, allowing for Spurs to compress an already tight space even further? It’s possible, considering their struggles at Wembley with a much wider pitch. But by now, one would expect Mauricio Pochettino to adapt his team for those small changes, even if it means going long on goal kicks or preparing to absorb more pressure and nick a goal or two on the counter. Since that hasn’t happened in any of these big away matches, Spurs have been punished for these mistakes and haven’t had any way of punching back.
There is a silver lining to this otherwise dour note: Spurs have played all of their away fixtures against teams in the current top eight, and while their away form hasn’t been fantastic this season, they have been able to win away from home convincingly at times. If that does stay true, and their home form is maintained, Spurs should still be able to finish in the top four once again. But with this lingering doubt about the one last puzzle piece needed for title contenders, one does wonder if Tottenham will ever put the entire jigsaw together to mount that full-on title challenge consistently, and maybe even one day take the trophy home.
Maybe this does sound like a nitpick for a club that has grown so much under their current manager. But with success comes greater challenges, and as of yet, Spurs haven’t met those greater challenges, despite evidence that says they should have by now.
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