Nuno Espirito Santo took a huge gamble by opting to leave his entire first XI at home for a Europa Conference League date with Vitesse Arnhem. He’s still relatively new round here so might not yet fully understand how the fates generally respond to such Tottenham-based temptation, but few fans of the club will have been surprised by what followed.
That teamsheet was an image always liable to precede unfortunate events. This Struggling Manager Left His Whole First Team Out Of A Winnable Game… You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!!!
In Nuno’s defence, the Spurs side he selected still contained several very good footballers – most of them full-internationals – who were, to a man, absolutely sh*tbone awful.
Tottenham’s second string stars grew increasingly visibly frustrated with opponents who flung themselves to earth at every opportunity and a referee far too easily suckered in by such obvious theatrics, but really this was projection. That was just the manifestation of frustration at the emptiness and vacuity of their own display.
Nuno must learn that treating away games in this tournament so transparently as second XI fixtures raises two problems. One, and most obviously, it leaves him nowhere to go if things are going wrong and two, it tells those players selected precisely where they sit in the pecking order.
The obvious counter to that, of course, is that these players should treat it as an opportunity to impress the gaffer and Stake Their Claim rather than a punishment or insult. And it’s certainly true that not one of the assorted full internationals throughout this second-string side could look at their performance and conclude they could have done no more.
But it’s equally true that these are not conditions conducive to making an impression. Nuno’s wholesale changes are too blunt, too simplistic, a tool. The chance for fringe players to impress is when placed in a team alongside first-teamers; not when surrounded by 10 other strangers and stragglers all trying to impress and none actually knowing precisely what they’re supposed to be doing.
Balancing European competition – whichever one it happens to be – with domestic endeavour is supposed to be part of a Spurs manager’s job. It’s not good enough for Nuno to simply absolve himself of making any decision at all like this. That’s not balance. It was an absurd and unnecessary risk to take not one of his first-choice front four even to sit on the bench as an insurance option for such a short overseas trip as this one. Fifteen minutes of Son or Kane or even Moura might well have been enough to get the team out of the mirthlessly predictable hole in which they found themselves.
Nuno is of course entitled to expect more from his players, and they were truly unforgivably rotten here in the face of a team that threw themselves into the occasion with skill, intent and no shortage of shithousery while roared on by a frenzied crowd.
While dealt a bad hand by their manager, there should be little sympathy for most of those in purple tonight. Eight of Spurs’ outfield players on the night were full internationals, while Japhet Tanganga was making his 32nd senior appearance for Spurs.
Then, though, there’s Dane Scarlett. Here’s where some sympathy is justified. He has, frankly, been stitched up. First by Spurs’ crippling and long-term failure to sign a competent back-up striker and second by a manager treating this competition as a by-the-numbers exercise to be negotiated rather than embraced.
If none of the other members of Spurs’ starting XI here were truly being given that cliched “chance to impress the manager” then with Scarlett it goes further. He’s not being given the chance to impress; he’s being given the chance to fail as the nominal spearhead of an attack that has no cohesion and no plan beyond lumping the ball vaguely in the direction of a still-developing 17-year-old up against experienced adult defenders. It is fundamentally not fair on him, and while it may prove a learning experience that benefits him it might just as easily cause ruinous long-term harm to the career of a hugely promising teenager. It will be pure luck on Spurs’ part which way that particular cookie crumbles.
Scarlett did not play well, but nor did he do badly given the circumstances. This has been his story whenever thrust into action as a starter in this competition. It is brutally unfair on him, and his night was summed up when he was booked after making no contact whatsoever with Vitesse’s keeper, whose outrageous dive was precisely what rugby fans think football is. Scarlett looked like he might cry at the sheer unfairness of it all. He was substituted a couple of minutes later. And a couple of minutes after that, Vitesse got the winning goal they had long threatened and undoubtedly deserved.
Spurs now lie third in the group. If the players or manager care, it’s far from terminal. Spurs have two home games – and with them the likelihood of a few of the first team being required to turn up – and an away day at group whipping boys Mura to come.
They do, though, now face the very real prospect of a group-stage elimination from Europe’s third-tier competition. The arrogance to not appear particularly bothered about that for a club without a trophy to its name in 13 years and a manager pretty fortunate to have the job he does is really quite something.