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Why Tottenham Hotspur is the best and the worst big team in the Premier League

They hammered Manchester City; they got taken to pieces by Monaco. Why are Spurs so good and bad?

AS Monaco FC v Tottenham Hotspur FC - UEFA Champions League Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

On Sunday, Oct. 2, Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester City 2-0 at White Hart Lane. Given the style and the swagger with which Tottenham played, coupled with the strength of their opposition, it stands as one of the finest performances by any English side in any game all season, and was widely interpreted as a sign that Tottenham were a seriously good team.

On Tuesday, Nov. 22, less than two months later, Tottenham lost 2-1 to Monaco and were eliminated from the Champions League. But this wasn't just a loss; this was a limp surrender. Monaco missed a penalty, Hugo Lloris had to scramble to keep the scoreline respectable, and just a few short seconds separated Spurs being thrown an unlikely lifeline in the form of an equalising penalty, and Spurs throwing it away, preferring instead to concede a second goal and drown.

Taken individually, those two results confirm, respectively, that Tottenham absolutely are good enough to compete with the very best in England, and that Tottenham absolutely aren't good enough to work their way out of a relatively friendly Champions League group. Taken together, they make no sense. It's tempting to resolve that apparent contradiction by nodding towards the concept of Spursiness, which ensures that every Tottenham adventure must end, sooner or later, with shaken heads, sighs, and mutters/chuckles/hoots of laughter. "Oh, Spurs …" Not all football teams have their own inherent abstract noun. Let us honour those that do.

Sadly, we should probably look towards more mundane forces. The range of quality of performance is reflected in the range of quality in their squad. The spine of their first choice team — Hugo Lloris in goal, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in front of him, Mousa Dembele in front of them, and then Harry Kane supported by Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela — is as good as anything in England. They complement one another as a team, too, with elegant passing out from the back and pressing energy up front.

Take a couple of names out, however, and things get a little more sketchy. Son Heung-Min's early-season scoring streak was a godsend, but Eric Dier and Kevin Wimmer don't look like adequate cover at centre back, Vincent Janssen is hardworking but awkwardly goalshy up front, and Moussa Sissoko looks an inexplicable purchase. And they've needed to lean on the squad: Kane's missed 10 games this season, Dembele nine, and Lamela five. Alderweireld, meanwhile, hasn't played since mid-October and won't be back until December.

These absences don't just sting on their own player-for-player merits: Spurs are a systematic team, and with each replacement part the system suffers. Lamela, for example, isn't just a good player when he gets the ball. His relentless, occasionally foolish commitment to hassling the opposition sets the tone for the team. Against Monaco, in his absence, it was stark just how passive Spurs looked when their opponents had the ball.

They're not alone in this, of course, and every other team angling for the Champions League places has their own irreplaceables and shallow squad areas. Liverpool don't work as well without Adam Lallana; Chelsea will have to improvise if they lose their wing backs. Perhaps Spurs can simply consider themselves unfortunate that their recent clump of injuries coincided with the Champions League group stage. Move all the injuries to April, and we might be talking about their cruelly abbreviated charge for the Treble.

That said, one thing that does mark Tottenham out from the other top four aspirants is the experience of their manager. Five of the managers of the Premier League's top six have won multiple league titles; the sixth is Mauricio Pochettino. And while it's not that Pochettino doesn't know how to set his team up — as we know, they can be brilliant — we can perhaps conclude that he hasn't quite worked out what to do when he has to do something else.

Against Monaco, they lined up in a vaguely festive 4-3-2-1 that looked, in theory, like it was designed to control midfield and establish possession. At the same time, Jan Vertonghen and Kyle Walker were kept back on the bench, to mysterious ends. In the end, they were brutally exposed by opponents who found and exploited the space on the flanks, while their pressing game was almost entirely absent. We probably shouldn't be too surprised at mistakes: like much of his squad, Pochettino is learning as he goes along. Last season was his first managerial title race. This, his first in the Champions League. To be less than perfect at this stage is no disgrace, even if it is an inconvenience.

As with the manager, so with the team. To pick a theoretically arbitrary but culturally significant cut-off point, Tottenham's first-team squad contains just one player over 30, and that's back-up goalkeeper Michael Vorm. Watching Janssen (22) and Wimmer (24) struggle to fill in when required, it's impossible not to wonder if Tottenham should perhaps have looked for a couple of experienced back-ups over the summer. Calm heads and seen-it-all personalities, who know how to work through a game that isn't going to plan. Though admittedly, older legs might not be so suited to all the pressing.

In sum, Tottenham are a perfect storm of extreme variance: a strong first team with dubious back-ups, a still-learning squad overseen by a still-learning manager, coming off a summer of mixed reinforcing. And that's before we take into account the discombobulating effect of playing European home games at Wembley, or the fact that Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen are pretty decent teams in their own right. This isn't to excuse their hideous performances in Europe: they should and they will be disappointed with their failure and angry at its manner. But it does perhaps explain why they can be brilliant and terrible.

Which means, of course, that the brilliance may well come back around again. For all that Spurs have been off their best for the last month or so, they sit in a respectable, undefeated fifth, five points ahead of Manchester United in sixth and four points behind Chelsea in first. If we assume that their aims for the season were to make a splash in Europe and maintain their splashiness at home, then they've only half-failed, albeit at an embarrassingly early stage. But extending their European performance out into a general prediction of overall failure feels like a dangerous thing to do. After all, we know they can beat anybody, and in considerable style too. The only problem is that, in certain circumstances, they're perfectly capable of beating themselves.