The Plight of Leading English Soccer's Second Rank

Tottenham Hotspur are well-liked and close to the top. But until they can beat their rivals head-to-head, they won't surpass them.

In August 2013, to gin up excitement ahead of a new season of broadcasting the English Premier League in America, NBC Sports created Ted Lasso, a buffoonish, mustachioed Texan whose complete ignorance of the sport he is hired to coach mocks, and celebrates, America’s long-established disinterest in the world’s favorite game.

The choice of Jason Sudeikis to play Mr. Lasso was likely an easy one. Sudeikis is a well-known actor, a sports fan, and a man capable of hilarious improvisation. When Lasso gets an English nickname, he embraces it. It's “Wanker.”

The producers had Lasso coach Tottenham Hotspur for logistical reasons. But there are other reasons NBC might have wanted Lasso in Tottenham white. Tottenham enjoy worldwide recognition and regularly finish near the top of the Premier League standings; in recent years, the club’s been in the headlines first for employing the explosive Welsh winger Gareth Bale, and then for selling him for a world record $132 million to Real Madrid. (Of course, the club has a rich history stretching back over a century.)

Perhaps more importantly, Tottenham doesn’t usually inspire passion of a negative kind, at least in America. To be sure, Arsenal fans dislike their old rival, but the animus of the North London derby fades as it crosses the ocean. New American fans might despise some clubs like, say, Chelsea, with their oligarch owner and mischievous coach; or Manchester City, the sheikh-backed parvenus; or Manchester United, the arrogant analogue to the New York Yankees. If American soccer fans have an enemy, it's not, probably, Tottenham.

Manchester United legend Roy Keane has written about how he once dreaded his manager walking in for the pre-match team talk. “Please don’t go on about Tottenham,” he was thinking. “We all know what Tottenham is about, they are nice and tidy but we’ll fucking do them. [The manager] came in and said: ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’, and that was it. Brilliant.”

On Wednesday, Tottenham played Chelsea. They lost 3-0, which isn’t surprising, because this is Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, and Mourinho has ripped the parking brake off his famous bus, handed the keys to Eden Hazard, and turned the whole vehicle into some sort of urbane, West London steamroller running on ethanol and Diego Costa’s bloodlust. (By this I mean 2014 Chelsea are really quite good.)

Still, it all seemed familiar. Not just Spurs losing on Chelsea’s turf—although they haven’t won at Stamford Bridge since 1990—but of Spurs losing, heavily, to slightly-better teams. Of Spurs being thrown aside by the company they aspire to keep. Longtime followers might suspect this happens nearly every time, and the statistics turn that suspicion into a certainty.

Since 2012, Tottenham’s record against the top four from last season’s Premier League—Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal—is a dismal three wins, five draws, and 18 losses. In those 26 matches, they’ve conceded 71 goals. Include Manchester United in that mix, and Tottenham’s “big game” record improves to 5-7-19 over the last 36 months.

What sticks out most are the margins. A selection:

  • Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham (February 26, 2012)
  • Chelsea 5-1 Tottenham (April 15, 2012) (FA Cup)
  • Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham (November 17, 2012)
  • Manchester City 6-0 Tottenham (November 24, 2013)
  • Tottenham 0-5 Liverpool (December 15, 2013)
  • Tottenham 1-5 Manchester City (January 29, 2013)
  • Chelsea 4-0 Tottenham (March 8, 2014)
  • Liverpool 4-0 Tottenham (March 30, 2014)

At The Telegraph, Jonathan Liew collected examples of the shocking defending that has categorized many of the capitulations, from ex-manager Andre Villas-Boas’s wonky offside trap to defender Jan Vertonghen’s clumsiness. Many of the players have changed; the quality of the defending hasn’t.

While no club would expect to dominate these titans, Tottenham’s strong overall record suggests they should be doing better. In 2012 they finished in fourth place, only to be edged out of a Champions League spot by sixth-place Chelsea when The Blues won Europe’s biggest trophy. In 2013, star winger Gareth Bale fired Tottenham to within an inch of fourth before leaving for Real Madrid. Last season, a Tottenham side struggling to replace Bale’s influence still earned a place in the Europa League—beating out Manchester United. A team stuck on the cusp of glory needs big victories to make real progress. Tottenham doesn't earn enough big victories.

How have the same big-game flaws persisted even as the club’s gone through three managers since 2012? Some of it is that very managerial turnover: New tactical systems lead to organizational lapses, and the best teams are more likely to punish those mistakes. Chasing hard to win the ball back after every turnover—a style the Germans call gegenpressing—is risky when not executed properly. Villas-Boas and current boss Mauricio Pochettino have both used a version of that tactic, and both have been burned by teams able to play through the pressure. Meanwhile, Tim Sherwood, Villas-Boas’s successor, had a reputation for being more concerned with his two strikers than midfield solidity.

“I couldn’t tell you my best team,” Sherwood once said. “I have assessed my players more than anyone, and I could not tell you the best 11 at Tottenham. They are all so similar; much of a muchness regarding quality.”

Sherwood speaks to the other problem. Tottenham can’t find a consistent group of starters. Veterans like Emmanuel Adebayor and Aaron Lennon have struggled for fitness and form. Inevitably, the bounty received for Gareth Bale’s sale was spent on a collection of players of a slightly lower grade. Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Roberto Soldado—these are all quality players, but who knows whether they’ll be playing every week, let alone contributing? Although striker Harry Kane is a real talent, one of Tottenham’s own, he and fellow youngsters Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb are still some distance from reaching the levels that might allow Pochettino to identify a reliable, coherent spine for this club.

Tottenham are talented enough to make this season another good one. The charitable observer might see the recent comeback wins over Aston Villa and Hull City as evidence not that Spurs have a tendency to make lucky escapes but that they have the grit required to make a real top-four challenge. The thing about the top four spots, though, is that there’s only room for four teams. Until Tottenham improves against the Liverpools, the Chelseas, and the Arsenals, Spurs fans will have to settle for almost.