One by one the Spurs players filed past, clutching their vanity bags and refuelling snacks, politely spurning all interview requests. “I don’t want to talk,” Erik Lamela said with an apologetic expression as he bit into a cream cheese bagel. “Sorry,” whispered Japhet Tanganga, taking a swig of his energy drink. Even Harry Winks, normally such a keen and fluent talker, simply burrowed his face into his hooded tracksuit and looked straight ahead.
To a man they looked bereft, distraught, stunned. As if they had just lost a final in injury time, rather than been pinged 4-0 on aggregate by a far superior team. Which on one level felt slightly surprising, given what they must have suspected would happen here after losing the first leg at home.
Given that for weeks, their manager has been telling everyone who will listen how weak they are.
“One team is much stronger,” José Mourinho claimed in his post-match press conference, arguing that every single RB Leipzig substitute would have made it into the Tottenham team. Hear that, Harry? José rates Amadou Haidara above you. Hear that, Hugo Lloris? José would replace you with Yvon Mvogo. And yet for all this, the drawn and devastated faces told a different story: that they still believed in themselves right to the end. The shared memories of Amsterdam and Dortmund, of Madrid and Manchester, left no other option.
“Everyone is very sad,” said Lucas Moura, the one Spurs player who did agree to stop for a chat. “We believed we could qualify. And we tried to the end, we fought, we gave everything. But it was not possible.” Lucas is 27 years old, and still one of the senior players in a Tottenham core that for all its apparent fatigue and ennui remains strikingly young.
Giovani Lo Celso and Dele Alli are 23. Winks is 24. Eric Dier and Harry Kane are 26. Serge Aurier and Son Heung-min are 27. Erik Lamela is 28. For all the understandable talk of clearout and renewal, the profile of this squad suggests it should now be reaching its peak, perhaps even striving for improvement, not fighting off the lingering stench of decay.
Clearly, something has gone wrong here. And yet the narrative that now prevails, which is that Tottenham could have avoided this fate simply by splashing the cash in that dead summer of 2018, is one informed by a large dose of hindsight. Yes, Tottenham might have benefited from a little more competition for places, a little freshness, a little succession planning.
Equally, however, it’s worth remembering that there were few complaints at Tottenham’s do-nothing strategy at the time, and that it was driven not by a basic meanness but by a crude but idealistic Catch-22: the players that Tottenham could afford would not improve them, and the players that could improve them would not be affordable.
“The more defined your playing style is, the more difficult transfers become,” Mauricio Pochettino wrote in his book Brave New World. “Either a player gives you something specific you’re lacking, or you’re better off not signing anyone.” “There’s something to be said about keeping the group together,” Kane argued in late 2018. “What that does is give the rest of the squad huge belief.”
Instead, Tottenham prioritised retaining its existing core by tying them to long-term deals. New contracts, Pochettino and chairman Daniel Levy insisted, would have the same effect as new signings. And though it’s probably unwise to admit as much now, in an era of chequebook coaches and financial doping, Tottenham’s frugality felt weirdly enlightened, even sustainable: eschewing the treadmill of disposable human talent, cutting down on single-use Ligue 1 wingers.
This is not to argue that Tottenham were right to sign nobody. A player like Jack Grealish or Wilfried Zaha – the ilk of player available to Tottenham at the time – might have given a sharp squad that extra edge it needed to win the really big prizes. Equally, it might have upset a fragile eco-system and hastened their collapse. Perhaps Alli gets frustrated at warming the bench, and leaves. Maybe Dier follows him. The wider point is this: there were no guarantees then, and arguably even fewer now.
Some duff decisions were certainly made in those windows (and Levy’s insistence on securing top dollar for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose were arguably a bigger blunder than the failure to reinforce). But show me a club of Tottenham’s size that nails it every time. Perhaps the financial gravity of football that made Tottenham’s rise so improbable made their fall from the elite almost inevitable. Perhaps all aspirant clubs ultimately succumb to one of two fates: either they get picked apart like Ajax or Monaco or Napoli, or they slowly rot together.
Or perhaps – and, admittedly, this is the unlikeliest scenario of the lot – Tottenham can arrest the decline, put a run of games together, rally and reach the top four. Perhaps this is a richly talented squad that is simply running on empty. “What happened last season showed that we are a very good team,” argued Lucas. “I cannot tell you what happened. If it is about mentality, about confidence. But we know that something is missing.”
And so, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, in the dimly-lit bar of a budget hotel in Leipzig, a group of Spurs fans grimly chewed the fat. Together, they had spent the last four years visiting virtually all the great cathedrals of European football: the Camp Nou, the Bernabeu, from Munich to Turin via Manchester and Amsterdam. Now, with their European adventure over for the foreseeable future, they had come to scatter the ashes. And after several hours of setting the world to rights, a dark and indefinite silence settled over them.
“Well, this is pretty thoroughly depressing,” one of them eventually said.
“Oh, cheer up,” his friend urged him. “We’re going to Colditz tomorrow.”