Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City—‘two roads diverg’d…’
On Wednesday 5 May 2010, a single Peter Crouch goal gave Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur side a 1-0 victory over Manchester City, thereby pipping Mancini’s side to the last Champions League place. Tottenham fans celebrated their team finally having broken the hegemony of the 2000s’ Top Four—United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea—and talked of a moment of cataclysmic shift in the English football landscape. That night did indeed signal some notable shifts, inasmuch as Tottenham have thenceforth earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as the other ‘top’ English teams, finishing ahead of Liverpool five out of the following six seasons; ahead of Chelsea and Manchester United in two; and consistently taking Arsenal to the last day of the season, before succumbing in ever-more unlikely fashion to the inevitable St Totteringham’s curse. Such achievements would have seemed a pipe-dream when Redknapp took over managerial duties in 2008.
Even so, one would have to admit with hindsight (and not even that much) that, if Tottenham won the battle that night, City most certainly won the war. Like so many of the great military upsets in history, the superiority of one side’s resources will eventually prove victory short-lived, and there was a poetic sense of fate when, almost exactly a year on from Spurs’ heady success in 2010, a single Peter Crouch own goal against Manchester City assured City’s position in the 2011-12 Champions League competition. It now seems that this match was the more legitimate moment of significance; not only has City’s place in the top four been all but assured since that day, but the club has gone onto amass two league titles, two league cups and an FA Cup, all the while adding world-class talent to a squad which now ranks among the top five or six in the world. Tottenham, meanwhile, have consistently come up short—whether it be by missing out on the Champions League by a couple of points, crashing out in cup semi-finals and finals, or failing to land major signings at the eleventh hour. For a while it seemed as though Spurs would be forever stuck in a purgatorial rut below the promise of genuine footballing glory, always a yard in front of the chasing pack and a yard behind the leaders.
And yet, in another case of romantic aptness, Tottenham managed in April to ensure their place in Europe’s elite competition almost exactly five years after they had last heard the dulcet tones of the Champions League anthem at White Hart Lane. Forget that title nonsense, Spurs fans were contented merely looking ahead to those ‘Glory Glory nights’ against European’s top clubs, in which one of their new stars would surely rise to the challenge in the same way that Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart wrote their names in Spurs lore half a decade ago…or so it seemed. Fast forward to December, and Spurs have played their last Champions League match of the season. More worryingly, they have almost no positives to draw from their performances in a group which, at the time of the draw, they would have considered tame. So why is this time so different from the last time?
Once again, answers lie with Manchester City. In City’s own inaugural Champions League campaign, they failed to advance from the group stages, despite superb domestic form which ultimately proved the best in the country. A year later, they crashed out in even more disappointing fashion, finishing bottom of Group D with no wins. Though they managed to arrest that decline in 2013-14, it ultimately took them until their fourth attempt to progress as far as Tottenham did in their one fairy-tale run in 2010-11. Many pundits wondered how a team with more funds than Spurs, better domestic form, and players throughout the eleven far superior to that 2010-11 Spurs team (let’s remember: alongside Bale and Modric were players like Alan Hutton and Jermaine Jenas) could fail to reach those heady highs. Well, as is so often the case, the answer is dull and simple: they hadn’t had enough practice. The Spurs team of 2010-11 now find a better point of comparison in Leicester’s current unlikely run: this was a team unbeknownst to Europe’s premier competition, at their most effective when playing with pace and power on the counterattack, who surprised teams with their skilful wingers, agricultural defenders (take a bow, Michael Dawson), and home fervour at a tight, old-fashioned English ground. This was clearly not a sustainable model, and one suspects that a big motivating factor in those outstanding performances was the combination of pundits’ incredulity and the knowledge that such nights were unlikely to be repeated. In other words, the Spurs of five years ago had the freedom to fail; a lack of pressure that loosened the players’ shackles and allowed them to perform without fear.
Manchester City, on the other hand, were five years ago a team with increasing financial power and domestic success, starting to flirt with the label of ‘title-challengers’, whilst becoming a more and more attractive club for some of Europe’s top talent—in short, the position in which Spurs now find themselves. Like City, Spurs also now boast a cultured, continental manager who prefers to dominate games with tactically-astute possession football, a team comprising almost entirely of first-choice full-internationals, and a couple of legitimate, world-class superstars (take your pick between Hugo Lloris, Harry Kane and Toby Alderweireld). Both these teams, unable to embrace the position of underdog in the same way as Redknapp’s Spurs or Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester, have to deal with the pressure of being increasingly expected to be in and amongst the European heavyweights, whilst attempting to play their own game against teams learned in the art of European football. And let’s remember, being successful in the Champions League and being successful in the Premier League are simply two very different prospects; the former is a slower, more tactical affair, which harshly punishes lapses in concentration, overabundance of space between the lines, and any lack of striking efficiency. Like anything it takes practice and experience; in the 90s teams like United and Blackburn found it very tough going for a few seasons, just as City and now Spurs have found it hard to get to grips with. With those poor starts behind them, City have blossomed into a far more effective European outfit, getting as far as the semi-finals last year before losing (narrowly) to the eventual Champions. This is a far-cry from the City who finished bottom of their group with three points four years ago.
For Spurs, this leaves them in a frustrating quandary. They need to play more Champions League football year-to-year to gain the true experience they need, yet they will find it harder to qualify every season. A similar comment could be said of the current Liverpool team, who also crashed out in the group stages two years ago, or even (and I never thought I would be writing this) the current Manchester United team, who suffered the same fate last season. If teams are unable to gain year-in year-out familiarity with the competition, they may have to sacrifice their possession-principles for a more counterattacking game, which proved effective for Spurs and now Leicester, and which Chelsea took to the nth degree in Munich to win the competition. Otherwise it will get harder and harder for teams to be successful in Europe, particularly as the race for the Premier League’s top four gets ever more competitive. Those English teams who will race ahead of the chasing pack in Europe will be those who do the most to guarantee their top-four place season after season—something that Manchester City managed, at the ransom of Tottenham, all those years ago.