The stats don’t lie. 5 games played, 3 defeats. 3 goals for, 5 against. Quite simply, Tottenham have not been up to standard in the Champions League. Having fought so hard for just their second ever appearance in the illustrious competition, they have failed miserably through being knocked out with a game to spare. For all the positives of their Premier League run of 12 games undefeated, the European campaign has meanwhile been nothing short of a disaster. Spurs’ focus appears to be exclusively on the domestic front, and they have been shown up for their lack of commitment to Europe.
On a poor night that summed up their lack of ambition in the competition, only Hugo Lloris could hold his head high. The Captain and goal keeper saved his side from complete embarrassment with a penalty save only ten minutes in, and another world class stop on 67 minutes. Whilst the application of Lloris could not be questioned, fringe players and a lack of conviction across the pitch proved costly. Dreadful defending through a wild swing of the leg from Eric Dier gave up the penalty, with Kieran Trippier failing miserably in his attempts to replicate Kyle Walker.
But Mauricio Pochettino must take much of the blame for both the performance in Monaco and across the whole of the Champions League campaign. The selections on Tuesday night said a lot in themselves, with both Dier and Kevin Wimmer starting as the centre back pairing. That along with the inclusion of Trippier, and the resting of Christian Eriksen. Spurs have tried to develop a squad that is capable of competing on all fronts, but at this stage Europe is simply a bridge too far when injuries and form leave depth heavily tested.
That Jan Vertonghen, Eriksen and Walker were saved for Chelsea is understandable, but it also sends a message to the rest of the squad. Spurs know their best team, and it does not include either Trippier or Wimmer. The exclusions of the aforementioned three automatically means that Tottenham have sent a less than full strength side onto the pitch. Added to the missing Erik Lamela and Toby Alderweireld, it is effectively the sort of eleven that Pochettino would deliver for an early round League or FA Cup fixture, or for the dreaded Europa League. Tottenham made their choice; that it became too hard with untimely injuries to compete on two fronts. That mentality was reflected in their performances.
Is Pochettino sending a message to Daniel Levy about a desire to invest further in the squad? There must surely be an undertaking or agreement to make the Premier League the first priority should the need arise. Even a January addition or two now is far too late for anything but a shot at next season. A season which despite Pochettino’s insistence that they would be better in Europe next year, that there is no guarantee of even being involved in other than domestically. And that is just too far away for fans to yet find any solace.
Contrast the fortunes and displays of Monaco themselves, and of course Leicester City’s run in the Champions League, and it is rather stark indeed. Teams that come with their strongest available line up will progress or at least give themselves a chance of doing so. Teams that treat the competition with less than the utmost respect will be chewed up and spat right back out. It’s just too strong a tournament to expect that less than full commitment mentally will be enough.
So Pochettino’s side now faces the daunting prospect of the Europa League. Unless they can somehow find a way to manufacture a home defeat to CSKA Moscow in the final group fixture. And ultimately it leaves them in exactly the same place they were before a top 3 finish last season. Fighting through an arduous Premier League campaign for another go at the elite competition in European football. The same opportunity that Spurs have just managed to throw away almost as soon as it started. Top Four again is very far from a certainty, and so it’s effectively back to square one if that attempt now fails.
It’s surely a bitter pill to swallow for a club that has appeared to be heading in the right direction for much of the last two to three seasons. That may very well still be the case, but it’s hard to see right now where the cycle ends. The cycle of fifth or sixth place finishes with the occasional jump to fourth before slipping straight back down. And how do Tottenham reach the point of competing both at the top of the Premier League and into the latter rounds alongside Europe’s elite?