Spurs are approaching crossroads where talent must lead to trophies
LONDON -- "Lads, it's Tottenham," is what Sir Alex Ferguson famously told his Manchester United players before a crucial game against the team that always seemed to collapse like a pack of cards. Those days of Tottenham flakiness and style over substance appeared to have become a thing of the past under Mauricio Pochettino, the Argentine coach who has transformed Spurs into force to be reckoned with since taking charge in 2014.
But as they threw away a 1-0 lead, and a lengthy period of dominance, before losing Saturday's FA Cup semifinal against Man United on Wembley, Ferguson's dismissive appraisal of the old Spurs began to ring true once again.
Spurs are a team of all the talents, with players such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen who could grace any team in the world, but they are developing that habit again of promising much but delivering nothing. Spurs are becoming "Spursy" again and it is a worrying development for Pochettino, both in the here and now and the longer term.
In recent weeks, Tottenham have thrown away a winning position to crash out of the Champions League against Juventus at Wembley in the round of 16, and just last week, they provided as much resistance as a net curtain against Manchester City as Pep Guardiola's team cruised to a convincing 3-1 Premier League win here. Now, with a first FA Cup final appearance since 1991 within touching distance they blew it again, with Alli's early goal cancelled out by Alexis Sanchez before Ander Herrera's second-half strike sealed victory for United.
Under Jose Mourinho, United may not be as pleasing on the eye as Spurs but they get the job done. They remain a club and a team in transition, but if they win the FA Cup for a 13th time against Chelsea or Southampton next month, it will be four major trophies in three seasons.
Meanwhile Spurs, for all of their undoubted promise, have not won a trophy since the League Cup in 2008 and the wait goes on. They hit a similar wall when losing the FA Cup semifinal to Chelsea last season, with Pochettino insisting his players needed time to learn and develop. After losing to United on Saturday, it felt like Groundhog Day all over again.
"We try to learn always but at some points, it is difficult," said Pochettino after this 2-1 defeat. "It is not always about learning, sometimes it is just about beating your opponent.
"We are in a process. To arrive at the semifinal, be competitive in the Champions League and Premier League and arrive in the top four, I think it is not enough. We are close. We are nearly able to touch but the only way is to reach this last level and to win.
"In the past few years, if you follow our process, we are building a very good team and trying to create a winning mentality, but at the moment it is not enough."
Pochettino has changed the mentality of Spurs but it is still not the hardened, ruthless approach of a United, Chelsea or Manchester City. And perhaps the former Southampton coach is partly to blame for the soft core that remains.
By repeatedly dismissing the FA Cup as a competition that is not as important as the Champions League or Premier League, he infects the minds of players with that same thought. You cannot win when your manager's reaction is a shrug of the shoulders, and there is a danger that Pochettino is giving his players ready-made excuses to fail.
"I think we need to understand where we have come from," said Pochettino. "It's easy to talk about winning trophies, but to win a trophy when you face a side like Manchester United, Chelsea or Manchester City is not easy. But the most important thing is we are able to compete."
"The most difficult thing in football is to be realistic but at some point, you need to be realistic."
Realism can be a dangerous word, however, if the reality is one of being second-best. What if the likes of Kane, Alli and Eriksen grow tired of going close but ending up with nothing to show for their efforts? The biggest and best players win trophies and they win them again and again, but Kane, Alli and Eriksen have won nothing but plaudits at Spurs and you cannot put those on the mantelpiece.
At some point, this Spurs team will reach a crossroads and it is looming fast. It may come this summer, or next year, at the end of their first season in the rebuilt White Hart Lane. But Tottenham cannot continue to fall short and be nearly men because their best players won't settle for it.
If they become the Tottenham of Ferguson's days again, the game will be up and this team will go down in history as one that merely moulded players who eventually left to become winners somewhere else.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_