Are Spurs falling victim to the fatal third season?

Tottenham’s defeat at Inter on Tuesday, their third in succession, has prompted a wave of reactions from inside and outside the club, mostly negative, understandably, and many of the knee-jerk variety.

Are Spurs falling victim to the fatal third season?

Gerry Cox

Tottenham’s defeat at Inter on Tuesday, their third in succession, has prompted a wave of reactions from inside and outside the club, mostly negative, understandably, and many of the knee-jerk variety.

At one end of the spectrum, those supporters suggesting Mauricio Pochettino’s time is up are clearly the same ones who scramble to get their opinions on social media and radio phone-ins at the first sign of a bad result, and can be dismissed – at this point at least – as the lunatic fringe.

Pochettino has been the most successful Tottenham manager in the Premier League era, with three top-three finishes in his first four seasons, despite a negligible net spend by comparison with the rest of England’s Big Six beasts. And he can also lay claim to developing the talents of young players such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and now Kieran Trippier to the extent they are fixtures in the England team.

At the other end of the scale, however, are those like the manager himself who publicly dismiss Tottenham’s current plight as a mere blip, and believe things will turn themselves around soon enough as long as they continue to do what they have been doing and do not get sidetracked by talk of a crisis.

Certainly losing to Liverpool, as they did last weekend, is no disgrace as Jurgen Klopp’s side appear to be sweeping all before them with a 100% record, which was what Watford also had when they ended Tottenham’s own unbeaten record 18 days ago.

Indeed Spurs have been notoriously slow starters to the season under Pochettino, and their current return of nine points from their opening five games was only bettered two seasons ago, when finishing as runners-up to Chelsea.

But even in the opening three wins, which included a club record 3-0 victory at Manchester United, the signs have been there that all is not well at what should by now be White Hart Lane – but is still Wembley as Spurs continue to play their home games at England’s national stadium because their own rebuilt ground is not ready.

That embarrassing delay to the opening of their new stadium, which could eventually cost over €1 billion, should not have much impact on the team’s results, as they still ended up third last season despite playing all their ‘home’ games at Wembley. But there are other repercussions from the huge rise in building costs, and the PR own-goal scored by the club in failing to notify fans of the delays or address concerns over ticket prices. Fans will put up with a lot when the team is winning, but it is another matter when results take a downturn, and it all combines to paint a negative picture of the club’s leadership.

Maybe the biggest impact of the delayed move has been the lack of recruitment this summer as Spurs became the first club in Premier League history to make zero signings in the summer transfer window. Change for changes’ sake is not always desirable, and indeed Spurs had benefitted from stability in each of their previous two summers to go on to successful seasons while rivals made wholesale changes to either management, playing staff or both.

But the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttman famously postulated that “the third season is fatal”, suggesting successful clubs needed to change coach or players every two years because the motivation to work for each other would otherwise wane.

Certainly Pochettino, a student of the game and admirer of the great coaches in history, appreciates the need to freshen things up, improve his squad, and be able to rest some of those players who went to the latter stages of the World Cup, most notably Harry Kane, who looks sluggish. But his only other centre-foward, Fernando Llorente, managed only one league goal last season and does not have the same presence as a below-par Kane.

Others look to be struggling both psychologically and physically from the double-whammy of a lack of a proper break and little pre-season preparation. It is perhaps significant that Spurs have conceded six goals in their first five league games for the first time since Pochettino’s first few weeks in charge, and that figure is double the number they had conceded at the same stage last season. As former defender Pochettino knows that a title challenge is built on a strong defence.

On Tuesday a journalist who had also been in Turin seven months ago asked: “This looked like a completely different Tottenham team to the one we saw against Juventus. What happened?”

That is the question Pochettino is asking himself, and knows he must find an answer to, soon, if Spurs are to continue to dine at football’s top table this season.

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