Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham supporting cast a cause for concern
Just days after beating Manchester United 3-0 -- their best ever result at Old Trafford -- Tottenham turned in one of their more abject displays to slump to a 2-1 away defeat to Watford. It was one of those games where nothing appeared to go right. Even being gifted the lead, courtesy of a freak own goal, wasn't enough to spark Tottenham into life. The defence twice went to sleep at set pieces and the attack wasn't incisive enough in the last 15 minutes to claw back a point and salvage Spurs' unbeaten start to the season.
After the game, it wasn't just the fans who were at a loss to explain what had gone wrong, though many were bemused at the decision to revert to a back three when a more orthodox back four had proved exceptional at Old Trafford. Manager Mauricio Pochettino appeared equally bewildered, accusing his players of treating the first 45 minutes as a training ground exercise and failing to show the necessary desire and competitiveness when the pace was stepped up in the second half.
It was a harsh but probably fair assessment. There was no point in singling out any one player or one moment when the game was lost, because the reality was that the whole team were equally culpable. Maybe the players had started to believe the hype after the Manchester United game and thought they only had to turn up at Vicarage Road to earn the victory. Whatever the reason, there was a collective lethargy that lasted throughout the 90 minutes.
This wasn't the first time that Spurs had made a slow start to a game, but it was the first time in a while they had flatlined throughout against less talented opposition. One of the hallmarks of Pochettino's team is that they have generally found a way to win ugly. Even when they are not at their best and are struggling to break opponents down, they have usually managed to come up with a moment of inspiration. Against Watford they couldn't even manage one. Not even from the normally reliable Harry Kane, who squandered a late chance to earn a draw.
Pochettino will be hoping the Watford performance was a one-off -- a collective brain fade -- and his team will come back strongly after this weekend's international break for what is sure to be a testing encounter with league leaders Liverpool at Wembley. But one thing about the Watford game must be causing him some alarm. And that is he didn't have the wherewithal to change the game even supposing he had wanted to.
Look at the substitutes' bench of the other top six Premier League clubs and you will generally find at least two players who are capable of turning a game. Players with the skill and ability to pose problems for opponents when the Plan A starting XI is misfiring and failing to make inroads. Spurs had no one. Certainly no one that Pochettino seemed to have much faith in.
Fernando Llorente was thrown on late, more in hope than expectation. The Spaniard's confidence is at rock bottom -- it can't be easy knowing your manager doesn't rate you and would have liked to have sold you in the summer transfer window -- and he added nothing to Spurs' attacking thrust. Harry Winks introduced some energy in the four minutes he was on the field, but the midfielder is still finding his way back from injury and struggled to make a real impact. In desperation, Pochettino was reduced to throwing on left-back Danny Rose with one minute left on the clock as Spurs searched in vain for an equaliser.
There are excuses, of course. Pochettino could point to the absence of both the injured Erik Lamela and Son Heung-Min, who was busy winning the Asian Games with South Korea, and argue things might have been different against Watford if both -- or either -- had been available. And he might have been right. Lamela had looked in good touch when he came on as substitute against Fulham and Son's pace invariably unsettles tired defences. Both players would have given Pochettino some much needed options.
Yet that rather misses the fundamental truth that Spurs' squad is thinner than those of their main rivals. Especially in attacking options. That is something that must be rectified in the January transfer window. The simple fact is that players do get injured. Lamela's and Winks' injuries are a regrettable hazard of professional football: over the course of the season other players will also have spells out of action with injury. It's also likely that other players will go through patches where they are badly out of form and could benefit from a spell on the sidelines. Where is the cover for them?
At full strength, Spurs have a team capable of beating almost any other side in the Premier League. But only at full strength. Their success is predicated on the unlikely combination that all players remain fit, on form and available. Only then does Pochettino have the wherewithal to try and change games that are slipping from his grasp. Against Watford we saw what can happen when the mirror cracks and the lack of depth is exposed.