What constitutes a “bottler”? How do you define “choking”? These are both pejorative terms that are easy to throw at Tottenham after their elimination from the Champions League. Really, they’re both too simplistic: losing to Juventus, this relentless winning juggernaut, should not be compared to a golfer who misses a two-foot putt or a team who throws away a double-figure-point lead.
You’d be well advised to generally stay clear of sweeping generalisations like this after Tottenham’s 4-3 aggregate defeat. There is no disgrace in losing to Juve. But that doesn’t mean Wednesday at Wembley shouldn’t raise concerns about this Tottenham team.
Giorgio Chiellini was one of those who raised them.
“We knew Spurs were weak in defence and fragile mentally,” he said after the game. “Tottenham had their chances and are a fine team, but they’re on the verge of being able to win this type of game. Sometimes you just need that spark, maybe a trophy win, but we had our experience and made the most of it in these circumstances.”
Fragility would certainly be one way to explain why a team essentially dominated a tie for about 165 minutes but still managed to lose it. Juventus battered Tottenham for the first 10 minutes of the first leg and cut through them in five minutes just after the hour mark of the second. Beyond that, it was basically all Spurs.
A team that only has to attack for less than 10 percent of a two-legged tie and still wins must be admired, applauded, held in awe. That you can score four goals in that time is impressive, but being able to rely on your defence for the other 90 percent is arguably even more special.
“It’s the sort of players they are,” Massimiliano Allegri said after the game, when it was put to him that Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli looked as if they were having fun in the closing stages, when Spurs threw everything at them. “Our problem is one is 33 and the other 36.”
Perhaps rather than experience, nous or any similar term, this was a lesson in ruthlessness from the wily old hand to the upstart challenger.
“It wasn’t a lack of experience or concentration,” Mauricio Pochettino said afterward. “I think we conceded three chances and they scored twice. We can talk about different situations, but that’s the reality. They needed some luck to win. I feel very proud; we dominated overall.”
But there is a problem here. Pochettino said this as a defence of his team’s efforts, but you can equally take it as a criticism. The chances that Juventus put away were largely results of their own clinical play, but they were also presented to them by a Spurs defence that lost the run of things for a few minutes. A few minutes is all a team like Juventus need.
This was a team that sensed the moment and took it. The switch in formation by Allegri was not only an inspired tactical move, but a masterpiece in timing too. “It was the right time because I felt there was a dip in the physicality of the Spurs players,” the Juventus manager said.
This was like a boxer sensing an opponent was about to drop their guard, preparing the big punch and delivering it at the perfect time. It’s not a surprise that Juventus know exactly how to win this sort of game; they’ve been doing it for long enough.
That’s something that Tottenham need to learn. Their problem is that they need to learn pretty quickly; as much as Tottenham fans are probably bored of, and don’t want to hear it, this is a team with a window. Who knows how long they will be able to keep hold of their best players, but the time they have them is their best chance of winning something.
And if they want to win something, they need to be a little more like Juventus. Dominating for so long is all well and good, but it’s not much use unless you can actually turn the domination into victory.
“I’m still a dreamer,” Pochettino said. “When you compete against Juventus, you can win or lose — but in the way we lost, I am happy.”
In a sense, he’s right. This was a game in which Spurs at the very least competed with, if not almost overran one of the best teams in Europe. The performance should make them very proud. And yet they still lost.
Tottenham are not bottlers, they’re not chokers. But sooner or later, they need to not be quite so satisfied with performances.
“If you watch the game again, we were much better,” Pochettino said. True, but if they watch the game again, they might learn a little more about winning from Juventus.