Ben Chilwell clipped a forward pass down the line and Hamza Choudhury seized upon the loose ball. He squared it for James Maddison and the Leicester playmaker did the rest, firing a shot from distance beyond Paolo Gazzaniga. From one down – briefly two down before VAR intervened – Leicester had seized an improbable victory and their fans lapped it up.
This was Tottenham once. A team of energy and endeavour, playing with the spirit of optimism embodied by their bright young manager. Passion and pressing defined that Spurs side and confounded the expectations of the club. They were the ones imbued with fresh hope. They were the ones seen as most likely to challenge the established order.
Tottenham are far further down the road than Brendan Rodgers would love his team to travel. They are top-four perennials. Champions League finalists. But this is a dip now and there is a sense of uncertainty. Is this a squad that has come of age and is ready to win or is something else happening? Is this renewal or is this decay? It’s tough to know right now.
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There were mitigating circumstances for this 2-1 defeat, so it is tempting not be too hard on them. Heung-Min Son was adjudged offside by the narrowest of margins in the build-up to Serge Aurier’s strike. Had that call gone their way then perhaps Spurs would have done what they could not do in their previous two away games and cling onto a two-goal lead.
Consider too that Leicester had been waiting for this game all week. Tottenham, meanwhile, had only arrived back from their Champions League commitments in Athens at 4am on Thursday. Mauricio Pochettino made six changes to freshen up the team, perhaps anticipating some lethargy given the demands placed on his players. Advantage Leicester.
That explanation would be more convincing were this result a one-off but it is a trend now – particularly away from home. Tottenham have won two of their last 14 away games, losing nine of them, in a run that dates back to January. Their last away win in the Premier League was eight months ago at Fulham thanks to Harry Winks’ stoppage-time goal.
It is a concern and so is the intensity of their performances. Opta’s advanced numbers show that Leicester allow fewer passes per defensive action and start their attacks closer to the opposition goal – metrics that Pochettino’s teams used to top. Instead, going into the game, Spurs ranked second bottom for pressed sequence. Urgency is not always there.
Leicester covered more ground than Tottenham and made more high-intensity sprints
How much of that can be explained away by a tough schedule, an unsettling summer and a few injury problems, and how much of it is a consequence of the fact that the make-up of this squad is changing? Tottenham had the youngest average age of any starting line-up in the Premier League for each of Pochettino’s first three seasons. Not now.
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Teams can evolve for better or worse. Youthful exuberance can make way for some savvy and a side can be all the better for it – the effects of diminished energy levels mitigated by a bit of nous. But are Spurs really learning? As Harry Kane pointed out in the aftermath of their previous lost lead away to Olympiacos in midweek, that is not obvious right now.
“That is the hard part to get your head around because we are not young any more, we’re not inexperienced,” said Kane. “I can see why the manager is frustrated because he has been here for six years now and we’re still making similar mistakes to the ones we were in his first year. We have got to find a way to get around it, improve and get better.”
Kane took it upon himself to make the difference at the King Power – in more ways than one. It was his cleverly improvised finish that opened the scoring and when Spurs went in a goal up he tried to restore some calm after the interval. Captain in Hugo Lloris’ absence, he was even given the hurry up by the referee early in the half after dawdling over a throw-in.
When Serge Aurier was denied Spurs’ second goal, Kane was quick to urge his team-mates on – geeing them up before the restart. But the momentum shift was swift and Spurs could not contain it. They wasted their chances – Kane shooting straight at Kasper Schmeichel – and failed to restrict Leicester. Another game they could not close out. More points lost.
“When everything is against us that is the moment to be tough,” said Pochettino. Rodgers also spoke of the need for focus in those moments after a VAR check has gone against a team. It was Leicester who capitalised on their opponents’ disappointment and the renewed sense of hope that reverberated around the King Power. It turned the game.
Asked afterwards if he had an explanation for the fact that Tottenham’s wait for an away win is now the longest of any team that has been in the Premier League this season and last, Pochettino said: “Different reasons, different circumstances. It is difficult to explain every different game. It is a good point to analyse. We are here to find the solution.”
Will he find it? Perhaps he has already extracted all he can from some within this squad. New blood might be needed. Speaking to Pochettino recently, he revealed that he saw this as the start of a new cycle – an acknowledgement that the cycle for the existing group of players came to an end in that Champions League final defeat to Liverpool in June.