2019/20 in Review – Spurs
A torrid season for Tottenham Hotspur, filled with few moments of fleeting relief, weighed down on a club who had lived their biggest high less than a year before. Standards dropped, interest waned, and the figurehead of the club became a total parallel to the one previous. Gregor Kerr looks back on a season for Spurs that took them from Pochettino to Mourinho, before Amazon Prime get the chance to.
The 2019/20 season for Tottenham Hotspur was the biggest year of change for the club in recent memory. Reaching the Champions League final in June was unprecedented and should have signified something bigger. But everybody seemed to know their moment, a once in a lifetime moment, had passed. The initial form wasn’t good, with one win from the first four setting the tone. But Spurs had been here before under Mauricio Pochettino – a run of four or five games, where doubts are cast. It happened in 2014, 2015, even last season; but they’ve always come out the other end.
This run didn’t stop though. A Carabao Cup exit to Gillingham here, a two-goal collapse away to Olympiacos there. Jan Vertonghen, Danny Rose and Christian Eriksen were reduced to shells of their former selves. They were stuck in a hole and seemed to lack the desire to dig themselves out. By the first week of November they sat 12th, nine points away from a Champions League spot which once seemed a forgone conclusion. For the first time in a long time, the mood had turned poisonous and the fans grew restless.
The relationship between Pochettino and the club came closer to breaking point every week. The Argentinean was restless, emotional and didn’t carry the positive message that had taken the club to new heights in his tenure. It seemed like he never recovered from that Champions League final defeat. It was clear that something had to give, as much as nobody wanted to accept it. At 7:30pm on 19th November, the chord between Pochettino and Tottenham had snapped, and they were looking for a new manager for the first time in five and a half years.
The club turned to Jose Mourinho, a name you would never associate with Tottenham Hotspur. He is everything that they aren’t. Tottenham like to live on the edge, Mourinho is pragmatic. Tottenham don’t spend money on players, Mourinho needs money for players. Tottenham don’t win trophies, Mourinho wins trophies. “Back me, and I will make you winners,” he told the players on his first day at Hotspur Way. Straight away, he had fans eating out of the palms of his hands.
Some fans though are Pochettino loyalists and couldn’t warm to the former Chelsea man, and it’s hard to blame them. But if Tottenham were to get results and the silverware they longed for, they would have to accept him, and it was easy to do so initially. The goals began to flow; three against West Ham, four against Red Star Belgrade and five against Burnley came before Christmas. The goals were going in at the other end too, but with wins, who could complain?
The game against Chelsea just a few days before Christmas looked set for a Mourinho masterclass. A first derby in the new stadium and a chance to climb into Champions League spot was the perfect set-up. But the performance was foul, the atmosphere toxic and the mood bleak, all leading to the first home loss under Mourinho’s reign. This type of performance would quickly start to become the norm before football was stopped.
This is the thing about Mourinho. You can accept how he works when you’re winning, unattractive or otherwise, but when the wins dry up then any praise starts to come through gritted teeth. You can just about accept pragmatic football if you aren’t conceding goals. But when you are, then those teeth grind even heavier. After twenty-five games in charge he has just three clean sheets. Spurs fans went into every single game knowing they would concede a barrel of chances, would probably concede and would maybe see four or five quality chances a game from their team. Who can sit and watch that with pleasure?
By March, Pochettino, the person keeping the club together, was gone. Kane had torn his hamstring; Son had broken his wrist. Champions League football looked less likely with the team in eighth place and the once fresh-faced, hungry pack of wolves desperate for their chance of silverware resembled a cynical, ageing mishmash of employees thrown together. It wouldn’t be dramatic for Spurs fans to feel as if they had lost everything they knew and loved about their club within the space of a half-season.
The tie against RB Liepzig in March was the most galling indicator of their decline this season. The Germans were everything that Spurs once were. Young, energetic, creative and they kept coming back for more. Spurs couldn’t live with them over two legs, pushed against the ropes time and time again, stuck in an endless wave of possession, attacking, crossing and overlapping. Leipzig scored four goals; Tottenham scored none. They were humbled and battered and if there wasn’t enough proof that the club had been sent backwards, this was the damning evidence.
Usually a break in games would allow Mourinho to gain that vital time with the players on the training field that he talks about, the one thing that the Portuguese admitted has prevented his personal print on the team. So far, it’s hard to wrap your head around what his plan is on the pitch and what he tells the players to do, there is no clear strategy. If he can get a new defence to replace the ageing Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, and somebody in midfield to shield them, we may see something more akin to a classic Mourinho team next season.
Player of the Season – Giovani Lo Celso
By the winter period, I wasn’t watching Tottenham play with any expectation of goals (which were few and far between), or any convincing win. The single biggest reason to keep your eyes on Spurs was because of the quick-footed South American who came into his own at the time. It became a case of waiting to see what Lo Celso did next. A clever pass he would play, a run he would make. You could see his confidence and leadership grow and he became a genuine pleasure to watch most weeks.
Several players took the brunt of Mourinho’s blame for a run of five defeats in six, notably Tanguy Ndombele who Spurs dished out a club-record fee for earlier in that summer.
While the Frenchman possesses ludicrous talent, his mentality and fitness are of a much lower standard. Lo Celso, who also arrived in the summer from Real Betis, has all three qualities. In a bleak season, he has been the consistent shining light and one that Mourinho came to understand later in the season, saying: “When I arrived, he was not playing. I didn’t believe in him or understand him immediately. Three or four months later, Giovani is phenomenal.”
While many expected his constant demand of the ball, recycling of possession and precision of passing, few would have anticipated a scrappy ball-winner in midfield. Lo Celso looks the full package and may be the Moussa Dembele replacement that nobody expected.
Young Player of the Season – Japhet Tanganga
It seems a bit bizarre to include a player who only made his debut in January, but Japhet Tanganga has been a name sitting in the minds of Spurs’ fans long before he made started against champions-elect Liverpool. Having starred in pre-season, the English defender did an impressive job man-marking Cristiano Ronaldo in a 3-2 win over Juventus.
But a competitive game, against a rampant and seemingly invincible Liverpool side was a different feat altogether. Up against Sadio Mane, he was facing a real Player of the Year candidate, but the Senegalese attacker got no spare change against Tanganga and chose to switch flanks in the second half. The following week, Tanganga featured at right-back, then left-back the next. No matter where he featured across the back four, he was composed and didn’t resemble a youth player in any manner. Spurs need to rebuild their defence over the summer, but this important addition could be free of charge.
Moment to Forget – Tottenham 2-7 Bayern Munich (1st October 2019)
It takes something unique to get dumped out of the Carabao Cup by a League Two side in the first round, and still not have it as your worst moment of the season. By the time Bayern Munich came to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in October, the heat was already on Pochettino and even the slightest of defeats would have been damaging. What followed was perhaps Spurs’ worst ever European night.
This level of thrashing was even more shocking when you consider they were level until just before the interval. Lewandowski scored, before Gnabry scored just after half-time for a third Bayern goal. Then Gnabry scored again, then again and then AGAIN. Seven goals shipped at home and barely a punch landed. This was nothing short of horrific viewing for Pochettino.
It was a living, breathing nightmare in footballing terms. The magnificent new stadium was supposed to host European glory nights, not humiliations. It was the feeling of purchasing a new home, filled with an open-plan kitchen, sauna and the whole works, but having the home broken into after two weeks, the windows shattered everywhere. If Bayern were the burglars, they were making their way through the kitchen, the living room and into the master bedroom. Spurs had nowhere to hide in a home that had been shaken to its foundations.
Moment of the Season – Tottenham 5-0 Burnley (7th December 2019)
Must I really write this section? It’s hard to recall many bright moments in a season that has weighed on the club like an anvil. There was a two-month period of relief when Mourinho came in. The whole situation itself was surreal but the initial start gave fans hope that the season could be salvaged.
Without any disrespect to them, a thumping of lower-half Burnley representing the highlight of a season really tells you a lot. Nonetheless, this was Spurs at their best and something we became less familiar with during the season. Harry Kane thumped one in from 25 yards, as basic but as satisfying a goal you can see. Heung-Min Son raced from his own half to score the goal of his career. Even Moussa Sissoko found himself in the box, managed to hit the target snd score. This may not have meant a lot, but at the very least it was fun. You remember the important wins at the end of the season, but what keeps you going is the enjoyment of seeing your team entertain you game-by-game. This was one of very few occasions were Spurs were just fun to watch, and for a few hours’ things were good again.
Goal of the Season – Heung-Min Son vs Burnley (7th December 2019)
As mentioned above, this solo goal was the pick of the bunch in the rout over The Clarets but was also perhaps the best career goal in what is a fine catalogue for Son. Picking the ball up just outside of his own box, he channelled his inner George Weah and flew past virtually the entire Burnley side before slotting past Nick Pope. It must have been at least 70 yards that he sprinted.
It’s not only a brilliant goal for the sheer speed and footwork, but also because it just isn’t the kind of goal you see very often these days. How many times can you recall an attacker genuinely just running at an entire defence recently? Son did that and more.
In fact, it was even voted as the best ever Premier League goal recently in a Sky Sports poll. If that doesn’t get you Spurs’ goal of the season, nothing will.