Tottenham Hotspur are out of the Champions League. Despite bringing home two away goals from Turin, and despite leading Juventus 1-0 for an hour of the second leg, they were eliminated by goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala. Speaking afterwards, Juventus’ gnarled captain Georgio Chiellini said:
“It’s the history of Tottenham. We knew Tottenham have fantastic players and are an amazing side - but they concede many chances every game. ... Tottenham have always created many chances to score - but they miss always something at the end.”
This sounds very much like footballer-speak for: they bottled it. Again.
Whether this is fair or not depends, perhaps, on how charitable you’re feeling. The generous reading is that Spurs’ presence in the Champions League this (and likely next) season is down to consistent, impressive, and generally stylish overachievement from Mauricio Pochettino and his squad. As such, going toe-to-toe with the mighty Juventus, and arguably outdoing them for much of the tie, can only be praised. They may have lost, but they could have won, and either way they looked like they belonged.
The less generous reading is that this, precisely, is the bottle job. To have control and to let it slip; to lead and lose. Spurs weren’t favourites going into the quarter-final, but they ended it somewhere between “could have won” and “should have won.” And the closer a side is to the latter, the more disappointing “didn’t win” looks.
It’s important, when considering the bottle job, to recognise that they come in various forms. This might have been a bottle job. But if Spurs had taken their excellent domestic form to Turin and been hammered, that might also have been a bottle job. So too losing thanks to a couple of cowardly tactical changes, or bravely taking them to penalties only to cock it all up from 12 yards. The bottle, oddly enough, is a fluid concept, and there are as many different bottle jobs in sport as there are positions of strength to stumble from. What unites the various bottles is the sense of flatness in the ending, as if the lid were left off too long.
This is Pochettino’s fourth season in charge of Spurs, and over that time he’s become one of the most admired and, if reports are accurate, sought-after managers in the game. By the money-burning standards of English football he has a modest budget, yet he’s produced a team capable of beating anybody and looking good in the process. And he hasn’t won anything.
In his first season, they lost the League Cup final to Chelsea. In his second, though it was always a long shot, they went into the final month of the season as the only team capable of catching Leicester, yet eventually finished behind Arsenal. And in his third, they were overturned in the semi-finals of the FA Cup by Chelsea. There are bottle jobs there, if you want to look for them.
Now, in his fourth, they are out of the Champions League and some 20 points behind Manchester City in the league. The only silverware left is the FA Cup, along with the trophyless necessity of finishing in the top four.
Pochettino himself has noted that the domestic cups — unlike the “best competitions” — don’t protect a manager from the sack, and don’t change much about the club. On the former point he is absolutely correct, and while the latter is perhaps more debatable, he knows what he is trying to do, and it isn’t “win the League Cup.” Instead, he is seeking:
“to set a foundation that Spurs fans can enjoy for the rest of their lives. Three and a half years ago the club wasn’t in a position to compete in the best competitions. That was the reality. Now we have started to change that image of Tottenham.”
Job done, or at least job going well. Even the hardest-hearted Tottenham cynic would have to acknowledge that Spurs bottle their season against a far better class of opponent these days.
But being in a position to compete in the best competitions — as opposed to just turning up and getting thumped by the proper teams — brings questions about not winning them. A side can, perhaps, be simultaneously a serious team making serious impacts in serious competitions and a group of plucky over-achieving upstarts who’ve done well just to get this far, bless them. But not for very long. And a repeated pattern of brilliant, but not quite, brilliant, but not quite, leads inevitably to thoughts of the bottle.
Perhaps this is where winning a trophy — any trophy — might be of some use. Of course, this is tricky in England, blessed as it is with three trophies between five-and-a-half big teams. But a shiny silver pot wouldn’t just mean something quantifiable and glorious, something beyond burnished reputations and swollen transfer fees. It would also demonstrate the ability to avoid bottle jobs.
After all, the League Cup may not matter much in the long run, or even in the short, but it does demonstrate the ability to not mess things up for a few important games in a row. And that, more or less, is the only thing Pochettino’s time in charge of Spurs is missing. They’ve had the transformative coaching and the emerging talent and the statement victories, and everybody’s going to come out of it well. All that’s left is an ending, any ending, with a little bit of fizz in it.