Tottenham's young squad could use experience, leadership amid slump
Inconsistency has always been the curse of the "next big thing" and Tottenham Hotspur are now discovering that there is a flip-side to beating Real Madrid and hitting four past Liverpool. Young players, coached by a relatively young manager, can ensure vibrancy and fearlessness but it is a combination that can also lead to naivety and a search for reassurance and leadership at times of turbulence.
The latter is the situation in which Mauricio Pochettino and his Spurs squad now find themselves after suffering four defeats in nine games since defeating Liverpool 4-1 at Wembley on Oct. 22, a run that it is largely down to inconsistency and their inability to win when playing poorly.
During that nine-game run, Spurs have hit the heights of securing Champions League victories against Real and Borussia Dortmund, but they have also lost at Manchester United and Arsenal, been eliminated from the Carabao Cup by struggling West Ham (after leading 2-0) and taken just two points from their last three leagues in a seemingly straightforward run of fixtures against West Brom, Leicester and Watford.
Back in October, after Liverpool had been swatted aside, Spurs appeared to be the most realistic challengers to Manchester City at the top of the Premier League but just six weeks later, they are down in sixth position, four points adrift of the top four.
Aside from his two-goal display in the 3-1 win against Real, Dele Alli has been poor for Pochettino's team while Christian Eriksen has blown hot and cold. Harry Kane has scored just three goals in his last seven games and Pochettino's handling of Danny Rose -- selecting the England left-back one minute and dropping him from the squad the next -- hints at disharmony behind the scenes, which always becomes more apparent once results take a nosedive.
Spurs remain a team capable of beating any opponent on their day, and it would be foolish to dismiss their chances of winning at City on Dec 16, but their inconsistency is now beginning to cost them.
When former Liverpool captain Alan Hansen declared that "you can't win anything with kids," following a youthful Manchester United's 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa on the opening day of the 1995-96 season, his logic was was sound. Too many young players without the necessary experience around them will always struggle when results go awry, but United bounced back to win the League and FA Cup double that season because those kids -- David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil -- had the knowledge and experience of Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona, Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce and Brian McClair alongside them to provide guidance and leadership when times were hard.
They also had Sir Alex Ferguson as manager, a man with trophy-winning credentials and the authority that comes with silverware in the cabinet. So when the young players suffered dips in form, they were carried through them by the older heads and their "been there, done it" manager.
Now that Tottenham are struggling for results, however, who do the likes of Kane, Alli, Eric Dier and the rest turn to for advice, guidance and leadership?
Pochettino's job is to provide that as manager but he does not have the track record that Ferguson had at United. He is also going through the first big test of his reign as Spurs boss, meaning he has the dual task of winning his own battle and keeping the cool head required to pull his players from their slump.
The history of the Premier League is littered with examples of managers using the knowledge and presence of an old head to carry younger players along, but Pochettino has continually resisted the opportunity to add a veteran to his squad. Jose Mourinho signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic at United 18 months ago in order to alleviate the goalscoring burden on youngsters Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, knowing that the Sweden legend possessed the charisma and confidence to lead.
Ferguson signed Henrik Larsson to do a similar job at United 10 years ago, Gerard Houllier recruited Gary McAllister (in his mid-30s at the time) to add seniority to his young Liverpool team and even Arsene Wenger went down the experienced-player route by re-signing Thierry Henry on loan in 2012.
Pochettino's players do not have a "big brother" figure to turn to, however, and this is arguably the time that they need one the most. As a group of players, Spurs really do possess a team that has the ability to become the next big thing, but their recent run shows that they need a helping hand along the way. This is because the pattern beginning to form at Spurs is one of high promise followed by low delivery: the players are becoming accustomed to being told how good they are but without having anything to show for it at the end of the season.
A wise old head on the pitch, one who has come through the ups and downs of a career and won things along the way, would be able to help change the narrative. But if Pochettino remains reluctant to add that player to his squad, he will have to put them back on track on his own and find a way to end the age-old problem of young players being knocked off their stride by inconsistency.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_