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Tottenham face test of faith in Angeball as Chelsea defeat reveals ‘bigger issue’ than set pieces

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Even with a microphone in front of him, Ange Postecoglou was barely audible as the Tottenham manager slumped into the press conference room at Stamford Bridge and took responsibility for his side’s third defeat in a row. “I feel like we’ve lost a bit of belief and conviction in our football and that is on me to change that,” Postecoglou mumbled, head bowed. “We were nowhere near good enough.”

It was not unusual to see the Australian so despondent following a defeat. Rather, what felt significant from this 2-0 defeat at Chelsea, aside from how lacklustre Tottenham were, was how angry Postecoglou had been on the touchline. The Spurs boss seethed at his players and his frustrations boiled over during his round of post-match TV interviews when pressed on why his team were not responding to his instructions. “Come on, mate, we didn’t play well,” Postecoglou snapped. “What do you want, for me to write you a dossier on where it went wrong?”

Well, maybe. There’s certainly plenty to fill it with, given Tottenham’s current form and their propensity to concede goals from set pieces, with 22 now in the Premier League this season, the third-most behind Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest. Postecoglou’s post-match press conference lasted less than three minutes, during which he still found the time to question Tottenham’s mindset, attitude, the confidence of his midfield, and the effectiveness of his own messaging. In fairness, Postecoglou had warned that Spurs have “far more important issues” than defending set pieces and he did not hesitate to lay them out on the table.

The biggest issue Postecoglou now faces, though, is that for the first time, questions are starting to be asked of him and whether adequate progress has been made during his first season in charge. Belief in Angeball is starting to waver slightly. There were grumblings in the away end at Stamford Bridge, boos at half time and empty seats by the end. There was a time, a couple of months ago, when mitigating circumstances explained Tottenham’s form but Postecoglou’s side have continued to struggle even after returning to what should be closer to full strength.

Ange Postecoglou cut a frusrated figure on the touchline at Stamford Bridge (Reuters)

The impressive 4-0 away win at Aston Villa in March is looking more and more like the anomaly of Tottenham’s 2024, during which they have failed to beat any other top-half team. In the consecutive defeats to Newcastle, Arsenal and Chelsea, Spurs have looked well short of top-four level and their form since winning eight of their first 10 matches of the season, to briefly sit five points clear, places them 10th.

Now, after a third defeat in a row, qualifying for next season’s Champions League looks beyond them and time is running out to make up the seven-point gap to Aston Villa. Postecoglou had insisted throughout the season that the development of his team was more important than the top four. Now, though, there are doubts over both. Postecoglou’s side still have a game in hand but they must go to Anfield on Sunday and host Manchester City in the final week of the season. On this form, they’ll be fortunate to return with anything, although Postecoglou was taking points off Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola earlier this season.

Those early days under Postecoglou were beyond anyone’s expectations, given the upheaval around Tottenham over the summer. There was a freshness around Spurs as Postecoglou’s side played with freedom, uninhibited by the problems of the past. But innovation does not go untested for long in the Premier League and Tottenham’s opponents have caught up. In recent weeks, Spurs have lacked legs in midfield and ideas in attack. There has been an absence of cutting edge in both boxes and Tottenham have just one clean sheet in their last 17 in the Premier League.

Tottenham’s performance against Chelsea was lacklustre (Getty)

What of the vibes now? They didn’t seem great when Postecoglou spent the first half bellowing at Yves Bissouma, Pape Matar Sarr and Emerson Royal, urging his midfielders to “pass forward”. From the away end, it can be draining to watch the same pattern of performances, frustrating to see Tottenham return to the insipidness of last season so quickly and after a promise of change. That is not to say that Postecoglou can’t turn it around. Rather, recent displays have offered an underlining of how far Tottenham still have to go.

“When we put in a performance like we did in the first half, it obviously means my message isn’t getting through, so that is for me to address,” Postecoglou said. He managed to charm the Premier League in his first months in charge but his team’s downward form appears to be affecting him and the set-piece questions won’t go away, either. From the outside, it certainly seems one of the more obvious areas to fix, even as he insisted there are “bigger issues” in his team.

Perhaps Postecoglou’s response to that is inherently Angeball in itself. He’s not saying drilling set pieces in training is not important, only that there are bigger priorities in shaping the Tottenham he wants to build. But while Postecoglou doubles down on one method and one plan, the country’s two best teams, Arsenal and Manchester City, have hired specialist set-piece coaches and lead the Premier League in that department.

It hardly reflects well on the Australian, particularly given the time he has been afforded on the training ground by Tottenham’s early exits from both domestic cups, adding to the absence of European football in his maiden campaign.

The idea of having a freer schedule gave Tottenham supporters further belief that they could carry on their early form, after making their best start to a league campaign since 1961. But a season has been marked by twin defeats to Chelsea and Mauricio Pochettino. If a 4-1 defeat in November was freakish, as Tottenham emerged with pride after battling with nine players, a 2-0 loss at Stamford Bridge came with the acceptance that Postecolou’s side have been completely average ever since.

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