Can you sack an interim manager? It is one of the great football imponderables, up there with “why can’t professionals beat the first man at a corner?” and “how does Steve Bruce keep getting work?”
It is one for Tottenham to mull over after their pathetic 6-1 defeat at Newcastle. April is traditionally the month where a team’s true character emerges, this was a moment of clarity in a blurry season for Spurs. Their 2022/23 has been a confounding tumult interspersed with sustained spells of competence, the sort required to stay in contention for the top four.
The wheels have come off now, last seen on Spurs’ journey north as they joined the M11. The minimum expectation in a crucial game for Champions League qualification was keeping it tight initially and quieting a lively crowd.
That lasted 61 seconds.
Spurs were 3-0 down after 10 minutes and by first-half injury time Newcastle’s players, not quite knowing what to do with themselves, were not playing the game as a friendly, but more like exhibition. It was the Geordie Globetrotters against stooges, the Haringey Generals.
“There’s been so many mistakes,” said Danny Rose, on punditry duty for Sky Sports and currently without a club. “All I’ve been thinking all first half is how am I unemployed?”
Wild things can happen in games like these which are hard to take back. Spurs captain Hugo Lloris was removed at half-time, seemingly with injury, but it felt closer to a mercy killing. He has been Spurs’ best goalkeeper for a generation but is clearly past his best. That his replacement, Fraser Forster, is a mere year younger than Lloris’ 36 demonstrates this squad’s atrophy.
You cannot fault the innovation of Cristian Stellini, setting up Spurs in a back four despite it being a formation their defenders seem only to have read about in books. One short month ago there was excitable talk of the Italian’s perfect record when deputising for Antonio Conte. Clubs with coherent leadership must drown out that sort of noise, just as Manchester United should have looked past Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s run of wins as caretaker and more closely at his nine months in charge of Cardiff.
It always seemed odd to assume a misfiring team could coast into a Champions League place under the deputy of an unpopular departed manager.
Stellini deserves some scrutiny for this implosion and the general direction of travel since Conte left, most strikingly 11 goals conceded in four games. But look at the players, the multitude of defensive sins, the lack of leadership, the wretched body language. This was their season in microcosm, smacking you around the head with clumsiness in the first half then playing reasonably for much of the second. Was their opening to the game all a bad dream?
Only Tottenham make you wonder such things. They are in the process of redefining “Spursy”, once a byword for plucky inferiority. Now they have a veneer of respectability, which makes their frequent crumplings all the more irritating. They are the secretly dreadful team in a wonderful stadium. Harry Kane sets personal goalscoring records while the captain concedes five goals in a half. This is luxury ineptitude.
Newcastle have not opted for the fast-track approach that Manchester City initially tried under Sheikh Mansour in 2008, when they signed Brazil forward Robinho from Real Madrid on deadline day in a glamour move epitomising a club trying to run before they could walk. Instead, manager Eddie Howe has steadfastly built a team that is primarily difficult to beat boasting the best defensive record in the division by signing multiple players with knowledge of the Premier League while strengthening an attack with exciting options including Sweden forward Alexander Isak.
The end product is a team unified in belief and purpose, everything Spurs are not. And when you think of the headstart Tottenham had over Newcastle last summer, the gulf between these two sides on Sunday is all the more unforgivable. Tottenham had Antonio Conte, Champions League football and a £160 million transfer spend to try and close the gap on Manchester City and Liverpool.
“It means everything, I always want to add value whether I’m starting or coming off on the bench, everyone wants to do it.”
Ten minutes later, a single pass once again unlocked Tottenham’s defense, this time Joe Willock found Alexander Isak with a floated pass from the halfway line and the Swede found the back of the net.
And then, barely two minutes after kickoff, there was another for Isak who made it five goals for the Tyneside club in 21 minutes.
Harry Kane pulled one back for Spurs after halftime, a glorious solo effort as he danced down the wing and found the back of the net with effortless ease.
But it was no matter, as Callum Wilson restored Newcastle’s five-goal advantage midway through the second half with his team’s sixth.
The result leaves Tottenham teetering on the brink of missing out on European football next season as the club sits within striking distance of Aston Villa, Liverpool and Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League table.
“It’s very embarrassing,” Lloris told Sky Sports afterwards. “We should apologize to the fans. We didn’t show a good face and we could not match the performance of the Newcastle players.”
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