Tottenham must admit Wembley problem: Proactive Poch needs to act
With the international break almost over -- and congratulations to Harry Winks on making his England debut against Lithuania on Sunday -- it's back to the Premier League. And for Tottenham, that means trying to get to grips with their temporary Wembley home.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino has become tetchier since the start of the season as he continues to claim his side do not have a Wembley problem. But the facts speak for themselves. On their away form record of four wins out of four, with 12 goals scored and just two conceded, Tottenham would be top of the league. Indeed, it is their away record that justifies their third place spot.
The home record is another matter. Two points out of a possible nine, with just two goals scored and three conceded, tells its own story. As does the fact that in 19 home games last season, Tottenham dropped just three points. What used to be fortress Spurs is now a genuine cause for concern. The season is into its third month and a clear pattern has emerged.
At every game at Wembley -- with the exception of the Champions League win against Borussia Dortmund, and even then it should be remembered Spurs were under pressure for much of the first half -- they have looked tentative and slow. They uncharacteristically conceded late goals against Chelsea and Burnley to drop three points, failed to break down Swansea and only narrowly beat championship strugglers Barnsley in the Carabao Cup.
Pochettino's response has been to claim that any talk of struggling in their home games is coincidence; the product of visiting teams coming to Wembley with a defensive mind. This misses the point. Clubs came to White Hart Lane last season looking to close down the game and escape with a point, but in all but three games Spurs found ways to break them down and win. Usually in some style.
It is time for Pochettino and the players to be honest with themselves. Whether their style of play doesn't suit the larger Wembley playing area or whether they -- like the fans -- are put off by the soulless atmosphere of the ground, something is wrong. The difference between their home and away form is just too stark.
Take the second goal scored against Huddersfield two weeks ago. It was a thing of rare beauty, the result of some slick one-touch passing to which the home team had no answer. In their three home games at Wembley, Tottenham haven't come close to reproducing that form. Their build up play has been ponderous, with too many passes going sideways and too few players making runs into the box. Visiting teams may have come to Wembley intent on defence, but Spurs have gone a long way to nullifying themselves through their caution.
Somehow, they need to find a way of making Wembley their friend and quickly, starting with Saturday's home game against Bournemouth. Though injuries to Mousa Dembele, Danny Rose and Victor Wanyama, combined with Dele Alli and Kieran Trippier not yet finding their form, the issue is not about personnel. It is about mindset.
Tottenham seem to be weighed down by the responsibility of playing at Wembley and it's almost as if the main thing on the players' minds is not making a mistake. It's as if everyone is either waiting for someone else to produce the moment of creative flair to unlock a defence or counting on an opponent to make an error, rather than taking responsibility themselves.
Pochettino's preparations for Saturday need to focus on finding a way to counter the default negativity setting that has crept in. And the only way to do that is by everyone being honest enough to admit there is a problem. Putting your head in the sand and hoping for the best is only likely to make things worse.
Managers and players much prefer to think there are tangible, technical issues to be addressed and these are often easier to work on and be fixed. Psychological barriers are often far trickier for sports stars to cope with. But something has to change and Spurs' can't rely on yet another Harry Kane wonder goal to kick start them.
Pochettino needs to be proactive. He could even try suggesting the players stop trying to pretend the national stadium is their home and to start treating every home game as an away fixture.
John Crace is one of ESPN FC's Tottenham bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.