Tottenham's struggles can be chalked up to several players' uncertain futures
No one would describe Monday's 2-0 victory over Watford as pretty. For much of the game, Tottenham looked disjointed in attack and vulnerable in defence, but at this stage of the season, the three points is all that really matters.
That's especially true after a wobbly couple of Premier League games in which they were outplayed by Manchester City and only managed a draw against Brighton. The 10-point safety net between Spurs and fifth-placed Chelsea has already been cut in half, and were the gap to have narrowed to just two or three points, then nerves might well have set in -- if they haven't already.
Securing a Champions League place is now all that matters for Tottenham. And while it would be nice if they could do it in style, cruising to a third-place finish with the free-flowing football they had been playing earlier in the season, they must be prepared to do it the hard way. Mauricio Pochettino knows his team are struggling. Too many players have lost form and confidence is fragile. Grinding out results in the last three games will be a matter of grit and determination as much as talent.
Saturday's game against West Bromwich Albion also promises to be rather tougher than it appeared a month ago. Having looked as if they were resigned to relegation, West Brom have suddenly decided they are not going down without a fight in the past two games. They fought back from two goals down against Liverpool to secure a draw and followed that up by beating Newcastle at St James's Park. The odds may be against them staying up, but they are still mathematically in with a chance and they are sure to be up for a scrap. Spurs will need to improve on Monday's performance against Watford to be sure of getting a result.
Quite why Tottenham have gone off the boil is less easy to pin down. It can't all be down to Harry Kane getting injured at a key point in the season or fatigue setting in after a long campaign. Spurs have managed without Kane in the past, and this time last year what was essentially the same team were brushing every opponent aside.
The most likely explanation is to be found in the internal dynamics of the club. Spurs now look to be anything but a settled squad. It seems hard to believe that a player of the quality of Toby Alderweireld should have been so pointedly sidelined, given that he had been the lynchpin of the defence for more than a season and a half, but Spurs seem determined to let him leave the club.
Likewise, it seems inevitable that Mousa Dembele and Danny Rose will not be at White Hart Lane for the next season as chairman Daniel Levy does not appear to rate their talent quite as highly as they do. Rose hasn't featured for a while, a victim of both injury and his own sulking, and Dembele might have played his last game in a Spurs shirt having picked up a knock against Watford.
Though neither player has been at their best this season, they will both be missed. And just as importantly, hard to replace. Even the best new signings take time to adjust to a new setup.
Other players also may leave. Despite being given plenty of chances this year, Moussa Sissoko has never really looked convincing and much the same could be said of Erik Lamela. At the right price, Spurs would be happy to let both players go. Even Victor Wanyama appears vulnerable with some papers reporting that the club is open to offers for the Kenyan.
Change is inevitable at any club, but it often comes at the price of disruption. Especially at a team like Spurs that doesn't have the strength in depth of the big sides that can afford to rest and rotate players. It has taken Pochettino the best part of four years to assemble a team in his own image and it now looks as if -- partially at least -- it is going to be broken up. Rightly or wrongly, the club's management has decided that if the team is going to progress to the next level where it can successfully challenge for domestic and European honours, then it needs a change in personnel.
The danger in all this is that once you start breaking up a settled unit, then you can't be sure of hanging on to those players you want to build your team around. Who is to say that if Kane, Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen were to have a fabulous World Cup then they wouldn't be tempted to ask for a move if a mega-wealthy club was prepared to offer silly money? No one can say for sure -- not even the players themselves at this stage -- but it is this uncertainty that probably best explains Tottenham's current form.
Uncertainty causes ripples of greater uncertainty. So Pochettino's most immediate task is to keep his team focused for the next nine days to guarantee the third-place finish that would automatically qualify Spurs for the group stages of the Champions League. It might be his biggest test of the season.
John Crace is one of ESPN FC's Tottenham bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.