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Premier League: Tottenham’s fall from 2019 Champions League finalists to drubbing at the hands of Arsenal

A flick by Dele Alli sends Lucas Moura racing into the Ajax penalty area. A sweep of a left foot later, and the Brazilian sends an entire fanbase into a state of delirium.

Moura’s second-half hat-trick has just completed one of the all-time famous European comebacks — having been 0-3 down with less than half a match to play, his goal in the sixth minute of injury time has just sent Tottenham Hotspur to its first ever Champions League final.

Talismanic manager Mauricio Pochettino tearfully embraces his staff and players. Close to the fifth anniversary of his arrival at Spurs, the Argentine has taken the club from the Europa League to Champions League regulars. Overcome with emotion, he sinks to his knees.

17:04 BST. September 26, 2021. London. Over two years later.

Harry Kane sinks to his knees as Bukayo Saka fires Arsenal into a three-goal lead over their arch rivals with barely half an hour played.

As stone-faced manager Nuno Espirito Santo watches on, staring down the barrel of a third consecutive 3-0 league defeat to a fellow London club, some Spurs fans have already begun heading for the exit at the Emirates Stadium.

A consolation goal by Son Heung-Min in the closing stages makes the scoreline marginally less embarrassing, but Spurs have been comprehensively outplayed by an Arsenal side who had begun the campaign with three straight defeats.

In just over two years, Tottenham have fallen from arguably the most joyous night in their recent history to the worst fate imaginable — being swept aside by their greatest rivals.

Spurs ultimately came up short in that 2019 Champions League final, falling 2-0 to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in Madrid, a result that many have since earmarked as the team’s breaking point.

Yet the damage was done long before that night, with Spurs currently enduring what Jack Pitt-Brooke of the Athletic described this morning as a “capitulation … years in the making.”

No furniture

Nostalgia is never stronger than at times of struggle, and rarely a day goes by right now without seeing Spurs fans reminisce of the team that clocked up 86 points in the 2016/17 season — a tally that would have seen them win the league by five points over Leicester the year before.

Unfortunately for Spurs, a rampant 93-point season by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea denied the North Londoners a first Premier League crown, but there was a sense among fans that, under Pochettino, the club was on the path to success. With the right investment, Spurs could finally get over the line.

Kane celebrates scoring his side's first goal against Arsenal in November 2016.

The following season, Spurs ran riot in a 4-1 dismantling of Liverpool. Nine of the eleven players that Pochettino started that day lined up for the Champions League final against Liverpool in Madrid two years later.

For Liverpool? Just four.

Understandably masked by that incredible Champions League run, it is easy to forget just how poor Tottenham’s form was in the second half of the 2018/19 season.

Having made an excellent start, the end of February marked the beginning of a seismic collapse — Pochettino’s side winning just three of their final 12 league matches, scoring a mere six, and scraping a top four finish on the final day of the season.

They were not the first, nor will they be the last, to embark on a dazzling cup run despite sub-par league form. Chelsea’s two Champions League triumphs in 2012 and 2021 were marked by sixth and fourth placed finishes respectively, far from the domestic pedigree of supposed European champions.

However, it was clear at the time that Spurs were in desperate need of a reboot.

Pochettino had worked wonders to take Spurs from a fun team of also-rans to a side that fought for the title for two consecutive seasons between 2015 and 2017, but two years later, he was overseeing an aging squad that he had squeezed the maximum from.

The blueprint had already been laid out by their eventual conquerors Liverpool, who had shown the potential glory that could come with acute business and strategy.

Having been in a similar position to Pochettino’s early Spurs sides just a few years prior, the smart reinvestment of fees from the sales of Raheem Sterling and Phillipe Coutinho into Alisson, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and others had transformed Klopp’s side into a domestic and European powerhouse.

By contrast, Spurs did not buy a single player ahead of that 2018/19 season.

“When you talk about Tottenham, everyone says you have an amazing house, but you need to put in the furniture,” Pochettino said, just days before that famous night in Amsterdam.

“If you want to have a lovely house, maybe you need better furniture. And it depends on your budget if you are going to spend money.

“Now, it’s about creating another chapter and to have the clear idea of how we are going to build that new project. We need to rebuild. It’s going to be painful.”

A cautionary tale

And painful it was.

In November, following a wretched start to the season, Pochettino was sacked and replaced by former Chelsea hero Jose Mourinho.

Tanguy Ndombele, Ryan Sessegnon and Giovani Lo Celso arrived but Spurs had lost two experienced first team players in Christian Eriksen and Kieran Trippier.

While a rebuild was needed, Trippier and Eriksen were far from over the hill in terms of age, and it is a cruel irony that both have since gone on to win their domestic leagues in Italy and Spain respectively.

A move for Paulo Dybala dramatically collapsed due to an agonizing complication over image rights, a failed transfer that would have served as a huge statement of intent.

Bruno Fernandes, now one of Manchester United’s main men and one of the league’s best players, was also reportedly a key priority for Spurs that failed to materialize.

Mauricio Pochettino applauds the fans after a UEFA Champions League group match against Crvena Zvezda in November 2019.

It remains to be seen whether Ndombele, Sessegnon and Lo Celso will reap long-term benefit for Spurs, but the damage had already been done.

Granted, they may not have the financial muscles that the likes of Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs — United and City — regularly flex, but a series of poor recruitment windows have seen Spurs fail to capitalize on the momentum built by Pochettino.

In an end of season letter to fans in May, chairman Daniel Levy admitted that the club had “lost sight” of key priorities.

“I have said it many times and I will say it again — everything we do is in the long-term interests of the club. I have always been and will continue to be ambitious for our club and its fans,” wrote Levy.

“As a club we have been so focused on delivering the stadium and dealing with the impact of the pandemic, that I feel we lost sight of some key priorities and what’s truly in our DNA.

“Our work in the community and with the NHS is an example of when we get it right, but we don’t get everything right. It has never been because we don’t care about or respect you, our fans — nothing could be further from the truth.”

Stasis

Levy’s candidness was commendable, and the financial impact of a $1.3 billion new stadium compounded by a global pandemic are certainly mitigating factors worth considering, but much of Levy’s credibility in his explanation was immediately undercut by the managerial merry-go-round played out at the club just months later.

With Mourinho sacked and caretaker boss Ryan Mason returning to his role in the academy system, Spurs reportedly held talks with both Conte and Paulo Fonseca that both ultimately fell through.

Following months of uncertainty, the club finally appointed Espirito Santo at the end of June, giving the Portuguese coach, by all intents and purposes not their first choice appointment, just over a month to prepare for the upcoming campaign.

The new manager’s arrival was made all the more complicated by the Kane saga of the summer, which served to encapsulate Tottenham’s stasis.

Having reportedly sought to dive overboard from a sinking ship onto a Manchester City-bound yacht, the failure of this move to materialize has led to the Englishman cutting a dejected figure so far this campaign. Having scored 166 goals in his career, Kane still is yet to find the back of the net this season in the Premier League.

Kane announced his plans to stay at the club via Twitter, saying he was “staying at Tottenham this summer …100% focused on helping the team achieve success”.

The tendency to read into the ominous “this summer” choice of phrasing aside, it is difficult not to emphathize with Kane. Having given so much to the club that give him his own break in the first place, he will no doubt be as frustrated as any fan with the club’s current predicament.

Should Kane’s poor form continue, there will no doubt be many in the Spurs hierarchy who regret not cashing in on the forward when they had the chance. There is an alternative universe in which Spurs embarked on a Liverpool inspired, Coutinho-esque rebuild with the Kane funds, but this is not that timeline.

As the club slogan goes — “To dare is to do” — Spurs are paying the price for their failure to dare.

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