Tottenham must reassert title credentials against Arsenal
You could see the fear and the tension on the faces of the Spurs' fans as they filed into Upton Park. You could see the fear and the tension on the faces of the Spurs' players during the pre-match warm-ups. The glory of heading the Premier League with just 10 games to play was there for the taking and paralysis had set in. It was as if the game had been lost before the start.
On their biggest night of the season so far, Spurs put in their worst performance by some distance. The normal confident, quick passing and pressing game that had served Spurs so well in previous games was nowhere on view: instead there were misplaced passes, poor marking and a general air of unease. In the first half, Spurs didn't manage a single shot; in the second 45 minutes they only created a couple of half-chances. Adrian in the West Ham goal won't have an easier game all season. The only positive Spurs could muster was that, despite playing so badly, they only lost by a single goal.
One game does not a season make and it's far too early to talk about the mental fragility that has led to so many other Spurs' sides under-performing over the past decades. But equally there's no denying that Spurs did freeze when the chips were down. Manager Mauricio Pochettino has talked a good game in recent weeks about how his team were underdogs, how the players weren't feeling any pressure and how they were just taking every game as it comes. Now we know that wasn't quite true. Spurs' players are human and they are feeling the pressure. How that pressure is handled will determine just how serious a title contender Spurs really are.
Saturday's north London derby against Arsenal gives Spurs an early chance to reassert their credentials. Pochettino will know better than to write off Arsenal, but the visitors certainly appear to be there for the taking. If Spurs were suffering from temporary paralysis against West Ham, Arsenal seemed to be in a state of rigor mortis in their home defeat to Swansea. Arsenal have lost their last three games and there are few visible signs of self-belief in the team. To make matters worse they have added to their injury list by losing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the defeat to Barcelona and Goalkeeper Petr Cech in the loss to Swansea. The pressure on Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and his men is far greater than that on Pochettino and Spurs.
However, down is not out. For Spurs to turn their obvious advantages going into the derby, Pochettino needs to prove that the players really are capable of taking each game as it comes. The defeat against West Ham needs to be understood not forgotten. To write it off as just a bad day at the office would be to fail to learn from it.
Pochettino needs to make it plain that the loss wasn't a freak result; it was the direct consequence of the team failing to come to terms with the pressure of its own -- and others' expectations. If Spurs play the same way against Arsenal as they did against West Ham, then there is a better than even chance they will lose again.
Somehow or other, Pochettino has to find a way of restoring the players' confidence by giving them coping mechanisms to deal with the pressure. Pochettino has managed this in the past, as Spurs have consistently shown their capacity to bounce back from adversity throughout the season. But with the finishing line in sight, it's going to become increasingly hard. Tension in the head invariably leads to tension on the field. When that sets in, Spurs normal free-flowing football gets put on hold.
On a purely practical level, it is essential for Mousa Dembele and Dele Alli to return to the midfield as soon as possible. If either are fit enough for the bench, they must be included in the starting XI. Spurs are a far slicker team when they are playing. Otherwise, the team pretty much picks itself, with Danny Rose and Kyle Walker returning ahead of Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier.
With just one outfield goal in the last eight games, the form of Harry Kane is also cause for some concern. How much the dip is a product of tiredness, tension or injury only he really knows. If it just fatigue, there's not a great deal to be done as Spurs have no back-up for him. Kane simply has to play. In his favour, he has a great record of scoring against Arsenal. A goal or two on Saturday would do wonders for his confidence. It would also go a long way to setting fan's minds at rest that this side does have the mental resilience to take each game as it comes.
John Crace is a columnist and feature writer for The Guardian. He is also a THFC season-ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.