Friday night football at Wembley, an international between England and Scotland. A World Cup qualifier no less. It’s a huge game for both nations, so much so that it’s hard to determine for whom it is more important. Especially given the deep apathy brought on by the English national side in recent times; a team of Premier League stars unable to influence on the world stage. Stars at least in name, if not so much in terms of consistent output domestically. And this is perhaps how they become tripped up at international level. Valuable squad components to their club sides, but in the current absence of any truly world-class English players, lacking the influence, experience and point of difference or brilliance to truly threaten the best countries. And leaving them exposed to occasional slip-ups against the less-than-best (Iceland).
There are parallels between the English national team and the recent decline of Tottenham’s form, and most certainly goal scoring output. Spurs’ past 8 weeks are a little reminiscent of England during Euro 16. Dominating possession, looking solid enough without being spectacular, doing enough to avoid losing and staying in the Premier League race and alive in the Champions League. Or in England’s case, doing likewise to get through their group in second place. Tottenham’s nadir, the abysmal performance in the Champions League to Leverkusen. Like England’s crashing out of the Euros. That Spurs’ depreciating returns are not (yet) terminal to their competitive seasonal hopes are the overwhelming difference.
Of course the similarities between Tottenham and England have more than a little to do with the playing personnel of both sides. Each have high quality, dedicated and effective players. Danny Rose, Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane form the core of Tottenham’s home-grown English talent, and have also become key components of their national side. Yet none of these players are world-class. That is not to say that they may not be; all five are undoubtedly of international quality and in Rose and Walker, they have two outstanding fullbacks who are currently at the top of their own game. There is also every chance that the other three, particularly Alli and Kane, will eventually reach world class status. But they are not there yet, and herein lies the problem.
Without the level above these players (and in Spurs’ case, without Kane on the field), England and Tottenham are unable to be trusted. They lack the game changer to create that special moment or even complete performance to overcome an opposition. Like Gareth Bale and Christiano Ronaldo at the Euros, or Eden Hazard, Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez in the Premier League. Both Alli and Kane are capable of reaching that level or at least close to it, but they’re yet to show it on the international stage, and yet to show it this season in the league.
In a sport where the margins between defeat and victory can be so narrow, it has never looked more important to have your best players firing and performing. The difference this has made recently to Chelsea is the most overwhelming evidence one could ask for in such regard. The difference it made to Tottenham too, not having Toby Alderweireld at the back and Kane at the front. And the difference to England, not having that game breaker. The one that Daniel Sturridge should have been, the one that Raheem Sterling still could be and the one that Wayne Rooney almost was once. That there are no players for England that would frighten the opposition seems obvious, and this too has recently been the case for Spurs.
At such an elite level, be it the Premier League or the international game, the lack of cutting edge can prove fatal. As Spurs went game after game without scoring from open play, so too their willingness to create diminished and eventually even the chances dried up. And for England, you could almost see the confidence seeping from them during that Iceland match, as the ideas dried up and frustration grew. Failure to take chances spreads across the pitch, and that is what the gutsy teams of lesser talent, albeit marginal, rely on. That they can hang in for a draw, or make the most of their one or two clear cut chances to knick a win.
The full flow and majesty of Liverpool and Chelsea in their current state must seem a world away for both Gareth Southgate and Mauricio Pochettino right now. They don’t have that X factor player, at least not consistently, so must design another way to win games of football regularly. In the most important fixtures, draws and narrow defeats will not do. And until they both create and develop this player from within (Spurs are unlikely able to afford to buy one), the issue will remain. The challenge is on for both England and Tottenham.