Is Tottenham’s Wembley Curse Really Over?
Regardless of team or league, it must be said that football fans are a fairly superstitious lot. All of us have that friend who will only drink out of a certain mug on matchdays, or who has banished the shirt worn at ‘that’ cup final to back-of-the-wardrobe obscurity. Perhaps we will scoff at their absurdly specific rituals and ‘lucky’ garments, whilst slyly concealing our own crossed fingers when the opposing team grabs one back with ten minutes left.
Fans of certain teams will know this better than others, of which Tottenham can justifiably claim to be one. Though perhaps not quite at the level of the Rhodesian witch doctor’s curse on the Socceroos, or the Romani hex put upon St Andrew’s, Spurs fans have all felt that creeping suspicion of irrational and malevolent forces acting against their wishes—so many defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, so many ‘Lasagne-gate’-style aberrations, so many promising players stained by recurring injuries.
This has made fans of the Lilywhites particularly susceptible to propagating a story like that which has plagued the team for the last decade. As the tale goes, whereas once Wembley was Spurs’ natural habitat (having been forever a ‘cup team’, and having laid claim to the hands-down best chant about the national stadium in 1981), the new Wembley has, ever since that 2008 Carling Cup victory against Chelsea, been a site of misery and missed opportunity. It is almost as if one over-eager fan made a Faustian pact with Satan that day that, if Woodgate could only pop up with a winner in extra time, Spurs fans would be forever sated, never again needing to win in HA9.
Certainly, like most deals with the devil, short-term gain has been has dwarfed by a long-term catch: two losses in League Cup finals, two losses in the FA Cup semis, and, at the beginning of this year, three Premier League fixtures without a win.
And yet, that win against Dortmund seemed to give Spurs life. For the first time, the stadium seemed their own; Kane finally got on the scoresheet, the fans found their voice, and the hellish journey back from Wembley Park to central London and Essex seemed bearable, even enjoyable. Two more marquee victories against Liverpool and Real Madrid should therefore represent the nails in the coffin, each superb goal by Kane, Son, Eriksen and Alli enriched by the feeling of intense relief that, finally, the genie is back in the bottle, the demon purged—that pesky Wembley curse is finally lifted.
So why does that nagging feeling remain? Why is every game so awkward, so far from the comfortable victories Spurs fans have become used to in the last years of the Lane? After all, amid those much-trumpeted victories against Dortmund, Liverpool and Madrid, fans have watched a goalless draw against Swansea, and two uninspiring 1-0 wins against Bournemouth and Palace, all of whom lie at the bottom of the table with 10 or less points.
This leads us to an inconvenient truth (for fans of Tottenham Hotspur at least): Spurs’ free-scoring escapades at Wembley against those European heavyweights are more anomalous than their meek struggles against relegation fodder. For the last two years, Spurs have been a team most comfortable in possession, especially at home; their lowest totals at White Hart Lane last season came in a 1-1 draw with Liverpool (49%), and 2-0 wins against both Manchester City (42%), and Chelsea (45%). Their highest possession stats came in a 1-0 win against Sunderland (74%), and 4-0 thrashings of West Brom (73%), and Bournemouth (70%). Compare that to this season, in which Tottenham have averaged about 70% possession against Burnley, Swansea, Bournemouth and Palace but only managed to score three goals in two wins. In their seemingly comfortable wins against Dortmund, Liverpool and Madrid, they have averaged nearer 35%– their lowest home totals in years. Most of their goals in these matches have come on the counterattack, with minimal opposing defenders between goalkeeper and goalscorer; this is when Spurs have been at their deadliest at Wembley.
With this in mind, it seems that Spurs’ adaptation to Wembley has been more about adapting to a new, counterattacking style. Bizarrely, this is less reminiscent of Pochettino’s Tottenham team than Redknapp’s; one senses that this pitch would suit Bale and Lennon charging down the wings after through balls played forward by Modric and Van der Vaart.
The problem is, such tactics simply cannot be maintained against teams who will place men behind the ball and refuse to be made vulnerable to balls in behind. Aside from more superstitious qualms about Wembley, Spurs fans are right that the stadium houses a huge pitch favourable to counterattacking teams, especially against a line as high as Pochettino is wanting to play; think of the last minute goals scored by Chelsea and Burnley earlier in the season, or Zaha’s golden chance against a flat-flooted Gazzaniga last Sunday.
Matches in which Tottenham will have to break these teams down (and remain solid against pace in behind their back four) will be more common at Wembley than matches in which they can surrender possession to an opponent and look for opportunities to put balls in behind. Unfortunately, Spurs have not as yet been able to recreate at Wembley the speed and ingenuity of pass that was seen at White Hart Lane last season, to pick their way through teams willing to surrender possession and put men behind the ball. Oddly, the larger pitch at Wembley seems to make this kind of intricacy harder, as the dispersed attacking trio of Alli, Kane and Eriksen are less able to perform the short passes and quick interchanges that proved so effective last year. Instead of mesmerised by this swiftness of touch and thought, teams are this year able to comfortably fend off the sluggish play of a Tottenham team too stretched to find their rhythm.
Perhaps this is a harsh assessment, and we should instead be complimenting Spurs on winning without playing particularly well—surely the sign of a top team. Also, it must be admitted that Pochettino’s Tottenham side are one performance (lots of possession; lots of goals) away from proving this article’s point wrong. For the time being however, Spurs fans beware: whether a curse or no, Tottenham’s travails at Wembley are far from over.