The noisy search for answers when good teams go bad

The noisy search for answers when good teams go bad
TESTING TIMES: The 5-0 hammering of Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday has rekindled hope for Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, but that could turn out to be like Ireland’s win over Scotland at the World Cup: a good team in its dotage producing a performance from muscle memory. Picture: Ben Stansall Getty Images

No one knows why good teams go bad, but they do. The Irish rugby team, for example, who, within the space of a year went from being very good to being really not very good at all.

Brace yourself, you are going to hear a lot about this one. It will go on for years. Oh, we are only in the early days now. Newspaper columns, podcast analysis, pub bore opinions. Yet to come are the strategic reviews, the learnings, and the four-year-plans. Will there be a Genesis report? Mazars are a little busy right now.

Sometime toward the end of the next four-year cycle it will die down, as we hunker in for the next World Cup calamity like shack-dwelling villagers in the path of a hurricane.

A glance at yesterday’s Examiner showed the post-mortem in full swing. Joe Schmidt reckoned the big mistake was building up the World Cup too much. “Maybe we built it into something that became a bit of a self-consuming monster,” said Schmidt, referring to the Godzilla of underachievement that stomps through the Irish camp every four years.

Donal Lenihan and Kieran Shannon wrote about how Ireland’s slavish adherence to Schmidt dogma had killed a sense of spontaneity, especially when faced with the freewheeling improv stylings of Japan and New Zealand. Tom Savage put it down to a loss of our famed accuracy, which resulted in Ireland treating the ball like a chunk of radioactive graphite.

It is hard to figure out exactly why good teams go bad, especially when it happens so shockingly quickly: so, added to analysis, into the vacuum of explanation rushes all kind of other nonsense.

Case in point, the backlash to Ireland’s quarter-final defeat, a familiar online flare-up of anti-rugby feeling. The team were overhyped, overpraised and overexposed.

Flops, bottlers, hot air merchants. Pedlars of mumbo jumbo and impenetrable jargon. Shillers of big brand marketing baloney. Bathers in vats of luxurious media eulogy. Back slappers and secret handshakers and old school tie wearers. Found out, shown up, exposed!

This, of course, was no longer about rugby. Rugby here was an avatar for class privilege. The barricades were being manned and the guillotine sharpened. For Irish rugby, read the bankers, the politicians, the developers and all the other pillars of society who led the country to its near demise. We are lions led by donkeys, and look — they’ve done it again! Their arrogance and corruption smited by All Black fire!

Also, maybe Devin Toner should have been picked.

Thankfully the streets have been cleared and the looting quelled. The team that had the bottle to go through 41 phases to get a match-winning drop goal in France, or go to Twickenham and win the Grand Slam — whatever happened out there, these are not the robber barons of our national shame.

This is what happens when good teams go bad. The spectacle of it is such that it seems to defy gravity. How can you be up there and then, suddenly, way down there?

Tottenham have had a similar trajectory. At the turn of the year they were within a stone’s throw of the Premier League title race. They were playing in the Champions League final in June. That seemed to cap five seasons of being the Premier League’s best boys, competing above their station, playing with vim and vigour, a Spartan troop chasing glory at the whip-crack command of their charismatic gaucho gaffer, Mauricio Pochettino.

There were signs of decline in the final months of last season, but they have since plunged off the cliff. The 7-2 hammering by Bayern Munich, the pitiful defeat to Brighton, and pitiful near-defeat to Watford were performances barely imaginable at peak Pochettino. Tuesday’s 5-0 hammering of Red Star Belgrade rekindled hope, but that could turn out to be like Ireland’s win over Scotland at the World Cup, a good team in its dotage producing a performance from muscle memory.

Again, there has been the sensible analysis. A skinflint transfer policy, mishandled contract wrangling, players who simply don’t want to be there, others who have been there too long — including, maybe, the manager.

But then came the crazy stuff. You will remember the WhatsApp message that flew around which suggested the Spurs dressing room was part of the Eastenders set. Jan Vertonghen was caught inflagrante with Christian Eriksen’s wife (Eriksen and his partner are not married), a scene into which Harry Kane waded in the Phil Mitchell fist-swinging role, knocking big Jan for six. Tottenham were in chaos, everyone wanted to leave and it was all building to a climax for the Christmas special.

The thing is, people actually believed this. Spurs would come up in conversation and people would tell you this story in hushed tones, as if they were White Hart Lane’s very own Deep Throat. This was the pernicious power of online scammery in action, but also about what happens when good teams go bad and people can’t believe it.

Other good teams that went bad? Borussia Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp, from Champions League final in 2013 to flirting with the Bundesliga drop zone in 2014. Chelsea in Jose Mourinho’s second spell, champions in May, sacked in December. The German World Cup winners. Mayo footballers do it about six times every season.

Why do good teams go bad? Usually there is an all-powerful manager figure who drives a team to success by demanding unquestioning commitment to his methods — when this slips, or everybody gets a bit sick of it all, the drop is calamitous.

“The place is a regime and they are sick of him. They’ve been driven so hard, they don’t know if they have anything left to give.” A quote about Pochettino, not Joe Schmidt, taken from a recent article in The Athletic, quoting dressing room sources.

The answer might be in the question. Maybe what makes these teams go bad is exactly what made them good in the first place.

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