There’s no doubt in saying it – last season’s Premier League was the most incredible there has ever been. Watching Ranieri’s boys win over the hearts of football fans across the all globe whilst on their improbable path to silverware is something no football fan will ever forget – it was absolutely unbelievable from start to finish. So, with this sporting anomaly leaving the league’s usual residents of the upper echelons dwelling in inadequacy, it left the three other Champions League spots vacant; free to be filled by anyone able to capitalise on the madness occurring in England’s top division.
One such team to do just that, was Tottenham Hotspur. Fired to their 3rd placed finish by the prolific Harry Kane, Mauricio Pochettino’s side were absolutely sensational to watch throughout the campaign, losing just six of the thirty-eight games they played. It also played host to the emergence of Dele Alli, who conducted his meteoric rise to prominence with remarkable maturity and consistently impressive performances. So, when this season got of to a solid, unbeaten start, you’d have been forgiven for expecting them to go on to have their impressive domestic form rewarded with some success on the European stage.
With White Hart Lane undergoing its extensive rebuild, Tottenham were granted the opportunity to play their home Champions League ties at Wembley – something that hasn’t exactly worked in their favour. They have lost both of the games they’ve played at the pinnacle of English stadia – so, what’s going wrong?
Well, it certainly isn’t the fans. The Spurs faithful have turned up in record numbers to support their side, with the capacities for both games played so far being over 85,000. Admittedly, a large proportion of the home support did turn sour following a poor performance in the 1-0 home defeat to Monaco, but with tickets costing around £65, what else can be expected?
Perhaps it’s the size of the pitch at Wembley – it’s around 545m² bigger than the equivalent at White Hart Lane, which creates an evident issue for Mauricio Pochettino. His trademark pressing style becomes a lot harder to replicate, with an area the size of two tennis courts needing to be covered, as well as the pitch they are more accustom to. This is a factor that would explain the lack-lustre showings in the latter stages against Monaco and Leverkusen, but what about the failure to impose themselves in the openings of matches?
Well, for me, there are two potential explanations for this. One, is the influence of the stadium itself – not on Tottenham, but on the opposition. Perhaps playing at Wembley provides a source of inspiration for visitors. Underneath the illuminated arch, such an atmosphere could be galvanising one side, whilst intimidating another – but unfortunately for Spurs, it appears to be the wrong way round. How much of a coincidence can it be that in none of nine Champions League games played at Wembley, no English side has ever managed a clean sheet?
The other theory is that the old-fashioned nature of White Hart Lane has become something the Spurs’ players have become to reliant on. The crowd seem just a matter of inches from the pitch, and with the traditional rectangular shape playing host to an incredibly noisy audience, it seems well-suited to the demands of Pochettino. But as Wembley is the complete opposite in shape, and the fan-player divide far greater, perhaps this is the reason for their European downfall.
Or maybe, in the more testing matches, they’ve simply missed the commanding presence of Toby Alderweireld and the clinical essence of Harry Kane. There’s no doubt that Kane’s presence (if not his match fitness) lifted his team in Sunday’s derby with Arsenal. They need something. Their continental dreams are hanging by a thread and they are slowly slipping down the league table having not secured all 3 points from a game since they outplayed Man City at The Lane on the 2nd of October, so there is little time to lose. The deal also states that Wembley will act as Spurs’ home stadium in any league, cup of UCL game until 2018, so it is best they start to settle in there, too.
There is no clear-cut answer as to whether it is simply the venue, or the team itself that is the cause for their recent struggles. It didn’t suit Arsenal between 1998 and 2000, and it isn’t suiting Spurs now. But as for Arsene, I doubt that’s an issue for him.
By Dan Wiseman