Is Europa League to blame for Spurs’ defeat, and are they better off without it?
12:00 25 February 2014
Spurs correspondent Ben Pearce examines whether Tottenham’s European involvement has damaged their top-four bid in the Premier League - both this campaign and in recent seasons.
It is that time of year again. Tottenham have returned to European action and, consequently, we must debate to what extent Spurs’ continental commitments are undermining their efforts in the Premier League.
In February 2011 Spurs earned three successive league wins, which left them fourth in the table - two points off third - but they then faced AC Milan in the Champions League.
That resulted in a historic triumph over two legs to set up a quarter-final with Real Madrid, but Harry Redknapp’s Lilywhites took just three points from the next four league games, losing at Blackpool and drawing with Wolves, West Ham and Wigan.
Did Spurs take their eye off the ball? Were they over-worked? Perhaps, but there was a clear week before the trip to Blackpool, where they were extremely unlucky, another five days before the trip to Wolverhampton and a full week before the visit to Wigan. There was time to recover and prepare in each case.
Last season, Spurs’ last-16 ties with Inter Milan in March were both followed by defeats – a capitulation in the closing stages against Liverpool and then a miserable display at home against Fulham.
Both could be explained by tiredness, especially given that they played 120 minutes in Italy before losing to the Cottagers.
On the other hand, the Lilywhites staged fightbacks after both of their quarter-final clashes with FC Basel in April.
Andre Villas-Boas’ side got a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Everton at the Lane and then scored three times in the last 15 minutes to beat Man City 3-1 – a game which also followed extra-time in Switzerland on the Thursday night.
Now Spurs have followed last Thursday’s 1-0 defeat against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk with an extremely lethargic 1-0 reverse at Norwich.
Jan Vertonghen rejected the theory that the trip to Ukraine played a part, stating: “It’s nothing to do with it because we rested a lot of our important players on Thursday. I think five or six guys even stayed in England.
“We knew this game was important for us so it’s nothing to do with Thursday. I played on Thursday and I feel fit. For me there’s no excuse for this game.”
Tim Sherwood added: “It’s another game isn’t it? We played a game. The travelling’s the one, just doing the travelling, but you can’t use that as an excuse.
“It didn’t affect us in the second period did it? We were stronger in the second period. If we were tired we would have blown up, but we didn’t do that.”
Sherwood’s view that Spurs were “stronger in the second period” is probably generous to his side.
It is true that they only tested Norwich keeper John Ruddy after half-time, but any improvement was marginal and there was hardly a growing sense of a siege. If anything, it was City who looked more likely to score in the final minutes.
The fact is that Tottenham started at Carrow Road with seven of the 11 players who had kicked off on Dnipro’s ropey pitch in Ukraine – and they were sluggish.
The obvious explanation is fatigue, and it was strange that Sherwood didn’t make more of an effort to freshen up his side.
While injuries limited his options at the back, Christian Eriksen had only made a substitute appearance in Ukraine – seemingly to keep him fresh for the game against Norwich. Yet he didn’t appear at all on Sunday.
Danny Rose certainly looked weary, being unusually hesitant in getting forward and struggling to get back – most notably for Robert Snodgrass’ decisive goal – and he was eventually substituted.
Etienne Capoue was also unable to handle both games, limping off with an ankle injury less than 15 minutes into the weekend’s contest.
Add the disappointing displays from Nabil Bentaleb, who was encountering the Thursday-Sunday schedule for the first time, and Paulinho, and there is a strong case to be made that Spurs suffered a Europa League hangover on Sunday.
On the other hand, Mousa Dembele had not made the trip to Ukraine and he also looked lazy, declining to track City left-back Martin Olsson in the opening exchanges when there was no excuse for tiredness.
Some point out that Manchester City and Arsenal both won at the weekend, having also played in Europe last week.
However, that overlooks the fact that City were at home in both of their games – and so were Arsenal. Conversely, Tottenham had the small matter of a 3,000-mile round trip to Ukraine before another away game at Norwich.
Spurs’ slow start in Norfolk is also not necessarily evidence of fatigue – they have kicked off in second gear before under Sherwood, against Crystal Palace and Everton for example.
But the Lilywhites have previously upped the ante after the interval, whereas this was a 90-minute malaise, one of the worst displays of the season – up there with the 3-0 home defeat against West Ham and the 5-0 loss against Liverpool at the Lane.
Is it a coincidence that both of those results also followed European games? Or is that argument undermined by the fact that Spurs had a full week to prepare for their 6-0 defeat at Manchester City in November?
As is so often the case, there are two sides to the story and the evidence can be interpreted in different ways.
However, two facts stand out. Out of Spurs’ last nine Premier League defeats, seven have come immediately after Europa League outings.
Secondly, they have never finished in the top four of the Premier League when they have been involved in Europe in the second half of the campaign.
In 2009/10, when they finished fourth for the first time, Harry Redknapp’s side had failed to qualify for Europe – and in 2011/12, when they repeated the feat, they had been eliminated in the group stage before Christmas.
So how does Sherwood respond? If pursuing progress in Europe is going to damage Spurs’ league form, should he field a weakened side against Dnipro on Thursday, even though the Lilywhites are behind in the tie? Are they better off being out of the competition?
At this point, the answer is no. In a strange way, Sunday’s defeat at Norwich has increased the importance of the Europa League.
While there is still a long way to go, Liverpool are now six points ahead in the battle for the top four – and their goal difference is so superior that it may as well be seven points.
Brendan Rodgers’ Reds may well drop points, particularly if their dodgy defensive displays continue, but it currently looks like Spurs will drop more – especially when they are yet to visit Chelsea, host Arsenal and, of course, travel to Anfield.
Like it or not, the Champions League dream is fading fast, and the Europa League is starting to look like Spurs’ most realistic chance of success this season.
Bow out against Dnipro this week and there may be very little to play for in April and May.
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs