This Week In: English Football – Tottenham’s Collapse Begins and the Away Goals Rule

Buckle up Spurs fans, it's that time of year again
Buckle up Spurs fans, it’s that time of year again

It’s become an annual tradition in the English football calendar, like the F.A Cup Final or pictures of crying fans on the final day of the season who have seen their team relegated – at some point each campaign, usually around the time that the balls change back from yellow to white, Tottenham will have a huge dip in form and will throw away the chance of enjoying a (relatively) successful year.  Sometimes the collapse is delayed, like in the 2005/6 season, when it was not until the final fixture away at West Ham that Spurs lost and allowed themselves to be overtaken in fourth by Arsenal (of course) after many in the squad had reportedly contracted food poisoning.  Last year, the moment when it all started to go wrong can be pinpointed to a specific minute – the 40th of their trip to the Emirates.  Leading 2-0 against the Gunners and ahead of them in the table by 10 points, Spurs had a great opportunity to consolidate their position and ensure that, for the first time since 1995, St. Totteringham’s Day – the point in the season when Tottenham are guaranteed to finish below their rivals – would not be celebrated by Arsenal fans.  Five goals later, momentum swung to the other part of North London and the Lilywhites ended the season in fourth place, missing out on a Champions League berth when Chelsea won the competition in Munich.  It was the type of thing that could only happen to Spurs – indeed when Everton finished fourth in 2004/5 and Liverpool took Europe’s top trophy, UEFA allowed both sides in to give England five representatives the following campaign, but then changed the rules to ensure that did not happen again.

This year’s downfall for Tottenham began at Anfield last Sunday when they were 2-1 up thanks to two goals from the left-footed wizard Gareth Bale Jan Vertonghen, but then handed the match to Liverpool with two reckless, needless back passes – first from Kyle Walker that Hugo Lloris failed to control, giving Stewart Downing an easy finish; then by Jermain Defoe, who put Luis Suarez clear in the area and forced Benoit Assou-Ekotto into a clumsy challenge, allowing Steven Gerrard to seal the three points for the Reds from the spot.  Should they have been able to hold on to their advantage against Liverpool, Spurs would have opened up a 10 point cushion over Arsenal in fifth place – five on Chelsea in fourth – but instead the Gunners can reduce the deficit to four should they win their game in hand and their supporters have started again with the “Mind The Gap” jibe from last season when they usurped us into third place in the table, taunting Spurs fans as they know that they will once do it again this year.  Further evidence of the alternate directions in which the two North London clubs are heading could be found in the midweek European fixtures: Arsenal may have exited the Champions League, but gained confidence from a 2-0 win against Bayern in Munich, coming only the second team to beat them there this campaign; while Tottenham stumbled into the last eight of the Europa League, progressing on the away goals rule after a 4-1 extra time defeat to Internazionale in Milan.  The shockingly poor defending that has led to Spurs conceding seven times in their last two matches is nothing new – it was just as poor in the away victory against West Ham – but part of the problem in those fixtures was the presence of Jake Livermore in the centre of the Tottenham midfield.  The squad is lucky to have a deep selection of quality midfielders to choose from and even with injuries to Sandro, Dembele (who returned in Milan) and Dempsey, there is still Lewis Holtby and Tom Huddlestone who should come in before Livermore, who at his best is a poor man’s Jermaine Jenas (and being a rich person’s version would not be much of a compliment either).  It is selections such as Livermore by Andre Villas-Boas, alongside his continued use of the abysmal William Gallas and aging Brad Friedel – who still makes good saves, but does not dominate his area, nor distribute the ball, as effectively as Hugo Lloris – that are concerning heading into the final two months of the campaign.

This weekend’s fixtures should provide an advantage to Spurs, as Arsenal travel to South Wales to face a Swansea team who won the corresponding match last season and were victorious at the Emirates this campaign, while Tottenham host Fulham, who have just two away successes all season and have lost the last six league meetings between the two sides.  Nevertheless, I can almost guarantee that what will happen is a narrow 1-0 victory for the Gunners, thanks to a strike in the final ten minutes from Santi Cazorla or Theo Walcott, while Spurs will be frustrated by the Cottagers and end up sharing the points in a 0-0/1-1 draw.  Many Tottenham supporters may still hold out hope that this year will be different and the collapse will not happen, but remember – it’s not the despair that gets you, we can handle the despair, it’s the hope.

In a week that my team progressed in Europe courtesy of an away goal, while the invaders from south London (to the uninitiated, that would be Arsenal, who moved into Tottenham’s territory of the north of the capital back in the early 20th century) exited the Champions League in the same manner, it may seem bizarre for me to say this – but I hate the ruling and consider it ridiculous and antiquated.  Perhaps there was a value to the idea of rewarding teams who scored away from home back in the 1980s, when a trip to Yugoslavia to face Red Star Belgrade, or to the Soviet Union to take on Dynamo Kyiv, would mean going up against the entire stadium in a cauldron atmosphere, not just the 11 players on the pitch, but modern footballers are used to playing in stadia all over the world and the thought that an away goal in London, Milan or anywhere else is of more value than one scored at home is ridiculous.  Jonathan Wilson wrote about the issue in The Guardian this week, covering the statistical reasons why the rule is no longer appropriate, but eliminating it would also get rid of one of the major gripes I have in football coverage.   Whenever a team gets a 1-0 victory on the road in the first leg of a European tie, commentators and pundits will refer to it as a “crucial away goal” when, in fact, there is no chance of them progressing via that rule – it may be a good win, but at that point the only side that could get through on the away goals rule is the one who lost.

The highlight of last weekend’s FA Cup ties was the match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford, which saw the home side take a 2-0 lead into the break thanks to a lobbed header by Javier Hernandez from a sumptuous pass by Michael Carrick, and a free-kick from Wayne Rooney that evaded everybody on its way into the net.  In the second half, Chelsea mounted a comeback and earned themselves a replay with goals by Eden Hazard and Ramires; and the Blues also overcame a deficit in the Europa League, as they beat Steau Bucharest 3-1 at the Bridge on Thursday, to progress 3-2 on aggregate.  The other FA Cup quarter-finals saw Manchester City thrash Barnsley, 5-0; Wigan win 3-0 away at Everton; and Millwall and Blackburn drew 0-0, with the Lions prevailing 1-0 in the replay, which was contested on Wednesday in Lancashire.  In the Premiership, Aston Villa beat Reading 2-1 at the Madjeski, after which the Royals sacked Brian McDermott, who had been named Manager of the Month for January, but had overseen five consecutive defeats that left the Berkshire club four points away from safety.  Elsewhere, Queens Park Rangers won for the second game in a row, as they beat Sunderland 3-1 at Loftus Road, the pick of the goals being a 25 yard strike from Tottenham loanee, Andros Townsend; a last-minute strike from Papiss Cisse earned Newcastle a 2-1 victory over Stoke; West Brom also came from behind to beat Swansea; while Norwich and Southampton played out a goalless draw at Carrow Road.

This weekend, alongside the aforementioned fixtures for the North London clubs; Reading travel to Manchester United, who they have only beaten once away from home in their entire history and that was in the 1927 FA Cup; Everton host Manchester City, whom they have beaten in each of the last three seasons at Goodison Park; Southampton host Liverpool; Aston Villa take on QPR in what will be described as a relegation “six-pointer”; there is a London derby between Chelsea and West Ham at Stamford Bridge; Wigan entertain Newcastle; Stoke and West Brom meet at the Britannia Stadium; and Norwich are in the North-East to face a struggling Sunderland side.

Predictions

Last week, 4-2; Season 126-148

Everton vs Manchester City – Draw

Aston Villa vs QPR – Home win

Southampton vs Liverpool – Away win

Stoke vs West Brom – Draw

Swansea vs Arsenal – Away win

Manchester United vs Reading – Home win

Sunderland vs Norwich – Draw

Tottenham vs Fulham – Draw

Chelsea vs West Ham – Home win

Wigan vs Newcastle – Home win

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