The stories will be about the Wembley curse. About the stadium’s temporary tenants, and their inability to win there. About the smattering of boos that rung out at the final whistle. But Wembley is not the issue.
The issue is Tottenham, who, for the third time this season, slumped to a disappointing result at home. The issue is that last year’s Premier League runner-up hasn’t been able to break down opponents determined to defend at all costs. Depleted Chelsea did that. Burnley did that. And now Swansea.
Paul Clement inserted a third center back into his starting 11, and the Swans held Tottenham to a 0-0 stalemate – Spurs’ second point from a possible nine at Wembley this season. Swansea shut down every Tottenham attacking movement until Mauricio Pochettino’s men ran out of ideas.
The visitors benefited from a bit of luck, too. Three penalty shouts were waved away by referee Mike Dean. Harry Kane rattled the crossbar from close range in the 58th minute:
Spurs did just about everything as well as or better than their Welsh counterparts. But throughout the 90 minutes, they walked a fine line between patient and unimaginative. As the second half wore on, the two adjectives became synonymous with slow and dull. Spurs kept possession and swung the ball from side to side through areas 30-40 yards from goal. But they couldn’t find much penetration.
And that right there is the issue. Not Wembley, whose wider pitch should play to Tottenham’s advantage in a game like Saturday’s. Spurs only have themselves to blame.
Tottenham has been so good over the past two years because it excels in transition. That’s not to say it hasn’t had success at slower tempos – it has. But this iteration of Pochettino’s Spurs, with three central defenders, wing backs, and fluctuating personnel in midfield and up front, hasn’t figured out how to replicate that success.
But it has excelled in up-and-down contests. It spanked an Everton team that came out of its shell to play. It had Wembley rocking just three days earlier with a 3-1 victory in the Champions League over Borussia Dortmund.
But Saturday was a different story. With only two days of rest between the two matches, Pochettino rested Mousa Dembele. Dembele’s replacement, Moussa Sissoko, was ineffective, as he invariably is in a game confined to tight spaces in the attacking third.
With Sissoko clogging up one wing, Tottenham lacked creativity. It monopolized possession and ripped 26 total shots, and eight on target, but few of them were quality chances:
xG map for Tottenham – Swansea. The chances (and penalty shouts) were there to win, but a pretty blah attacking game from Spurs. pic.twitter.com/meWcJoNBI4
— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) September 16, 2017
Pochettino set his team up in a slightly awkward, unbalanced formation that was somewhere in between a 3-3-3-1 and a 4-1-4-1. If it was three-at-the-back, Heung-Min Son was a makeshift left wing back. Jan Vertonghen played somewhere in between left center back and traditional, stay-at-home left back. He occasionally stepped into midfield when Spurs had the ball, which was often.
Pochettino then flipped Kieran Trippier from the right to the left for the second half, and played Moussa Sissoko by himself wide right. Son’s darts toward central areas troubled Swansea, but couldn’t crack the visitors’ low block. And it was a very sturdy block – the Swans deserved credit. Sam Clucas put in an exemplary shift in defensive midfield. Alfie Mawson and Federico Fernandez were unperturbed by everything Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Kane threw at them.
Sissoko was eventually replaced by Serge Aurier, and the right back give Tottenham more balance. But the deadline day signing from PSG couldn’t inject much attacking impetus.
Pochettino also threw on former Swansea striker Fernando Llorente with 15 minutes remaining, but Spurs couldn’t bring their target man into the game. There were close calls, all the way up until stoppage time, when Trippier stung a bouncing ball inches wide of Lukas Fabianski’s post. But no breakthrough.
In all likelihood, the early season struggles are merely a blip. It’s not the first time Spurs have struggled in August and September, after all. Two seasons ago, they began what would eventually be a title challenge with one win, three draws and a loss. In Pochettino’s first year in charge, his team lost five of its first 11.
But there are a few structural flaws for the Argentine boss to ponder; a few tactical kinks to work out. Safe to say those will take precedence over any fretting about a Wembley curse.
– – – – – – –
Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.