Tottenham midfield issues creating self-doubt that Burnley could attack
There can be no sugar-coating of Tottenham's defeat by Manchester City last Saturday; Spurs weren't just beaten they were thoroughly out-classed.
For much of the game Tottenham's players were chasing shadows, always seemingly at least five yards behind the ball. By the end they were physical and mental wrecks with many normally reliable footballers reduced to making embarrassing schoolboy errors.
It is tempting to treat the City game as a one-off and not read too much into it. Pep Guardiola's side are in a league of their own at the moment -- they might even now be the best side in Europe -- and Tottenham weren't the first and certainly won't be the last team to be played off the pitch at the Etihad.
Logic, therefore, might suggest the best way for Spurs to recover from the hammering they took would be to ring-fence it, to compartmentalise it and try and start afresh against Burnley on Saturday as if nothing untoward had happened.
That though would be to miss a trick. The defeat to City highlighted many of Spurs' shortcomings that other teams don't always manage to exploit so ruthlessly. The simple truth is that -- the games against Liverpool, Real Madrid, Huddersfield and Stoke apart -- Tottenham have been a long way off their best all season. They have struggled to beat teams they were swatting aside last season and dropping far too many points in the process.
Blaming the move to Wembley is not good enough. Curiously, while in the early half of the season Mauricio Pochettino got angry at suggestions that Spurs were finding life difficult away from White Hart Lane, the manager now seldom misses an opportunity at his weekly news conferences to talk up the problems of the Wembley pitch.
Nor is it good enough to blame injuries to key players for the dip in form. Yes, Toby Alderweireld and Victor Wanyama are key players who have been much missed, but Spurs have aspirations of being a big, top four club. And all top four clubs accumulate their fair share of injuries over the course of a season. Spurs haven't been especially unlucky in this area, they just haven't done the necessary strategic planning to make sure their squad has the strength in depth to minimise the absence of key players.
The simple truth is that Spurs are always going to find it hard to compete with Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea because they don't have the same financial resources. To put it simply, Spurs have probably over-performed in the past two seasons and this year's performances must be seen as some kind of corrective -- a return to the level a club of Tottenham's financial size can reasonably expect.
Which isn't to say that the team can't aim for better. It must be as frustrating for the players as it is for the fans to know that the side is capable of so much more. The difference between last season and this is all too stark.
It's easy to point the finger at the wing-backs for the current struggles, with Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies not offering nearly the same threat as Kyle Walker and Danny Rose at their best. But that again doesn't really tell the whole story.
Where Spurs are really struggling is in midfield. Last year they undid the opposition time and again with the speed with which they moved the ball from defence to attack. This year their build up play has been consistently ponderous and laboured; passes that used to go forward like quicksilver now go sideways. Visiting teams may not have made things easy for Tottenham by putting 10 men behind the ball at Wembley, but Spurs have played into their hands with their lack of movement off the ball.
It's time for Pochettino to have a long, hard think about the make-up of his midfield. Only Son Heung-Min has consistently played with the high tempo energy which the manager demands. Dele Alli has been out of sorts all season -- he was lucky not to be sent off for a horrible, petulant stamp on Kevin De Bruyne against Manchester City -- and it might be time for him to spend some time on the bench. There's only so long you can persevere with an obviously talented player who is horribly out of form. Much of the time, Alli appears a moody, negative presence these days.
Christian Eriksen blows hot and cold far too often. While at times, he looks like one of the most gifted playmakers in the Premier League, he frequently drifts out of the game for long periods and Pochettino needs to increase the intensity of his performances.
Mousa Dembele has also been a massive disappointment. His ability to retain the ball, ghost past defenders and drive upfield was an integral -- if often unheralded -- feature of Spurs' attacking game last year. He now looks to have lost a yard or two of pace and is nowhere near as influential.
Which leaves Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko, neither of whom are going to strike terror in top class teams. Winks is still learning the game while Sissoko gives the impression he has forgotten his. With so much of the midfield out of sorts, it's no surprise that Harry Kane was reduced to firing off speculative long-range shots in his last two outings against Brighton and City. He was getting so little of the ball in dangerous areas, he had to make his own chances.
That said, the Burnley game comes at a good time. The Clarets are flying high at the moment and will look to attack what they believe is a suspect Spurs defence. Tottenham are at their best on the counter and they will be hoping to catch Burnley on the break. But it won't be easy.
Burnley are full of confidence; Spurs are riddled with self-doubt. Pochettino has said he wouldn't take a fourth place finish if it was offered to him now, but many of those around him might see it differently.
John Crace is one of ESPN FC's Tottenham bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.