Why do Spurs keep failing in Europe? Gent upset poses questions
LONDON -- Tottenham exited Europe in the still-unfamiliar setting of Wembley on Thursday night but there was nothing unfamiliar about the sense of disappointment that followed the 2-2 draw with Gent.
Spurs have competed in Europe in all but one year since 2006, with the exception of 2009-10, but they have only made a lasting impression in their unexpected run to the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010-11. In the UEFA Cup/Europa League, they have rarely looked as motivated or as capable as in domestic football -- something alluded to by Harry Kane before the 2-2 draw with KAA Gent, which eliminated Spurs 3-2 on aggregate.
There was little wrong with Tottenham's performance against the Belgian side, even after Dele Alli's rush of blood saw him sent off, but manager Mauricio Pochettino was right in saying the damage was done in the first leg in Belgium -- a 1-0 defeat where Spurs were complacent and disinterested.
Complacency was a factor in their Champions League exit, too, notably in the opening group game against Monaco at Wembley. Everyone knows now what the Ligue 1 leaders are capable of, even if Manchester City exposed their defensive frailties in a 5-3 win on Tuesday night, but Spurs were both too relaxed and overwhelmed against the team they beat 4-1 in the Europa League last season.
"It's special," said Pochettino of playing European football at Wembley for the first time, admitting he would get goosebumps when he first walked out in front of 90,000 Spurs fans. Yet the manager's comments seemed more akin to Sutton preparing for their FA Cup fifth round clash at Arsenal than one of the best teams in the country playing in Europe's top club competition.
An inexperienced Spurs made two mistakes, leading to two Monaco goals, in that first game, losing 2-1. They never really recovered at Wembley, losing to 1-0 Leverkusen too and only winning the final group game against CSKA Moscow when the pressure was off.
Just as Monaco and then Leverkusen were inspired by Wembley, so too were Gent, buoyed on by their raucous travelling support in the Europa League. Spurs, by contrast, too often looked uncomfortable and overwhelmed on the big pitch, despite hugely impressive backing from their own supporters.
Pochettino has stuck to the party line that Wembley is not to blame for the European struggles but perhaps Moussa Sissoko's assessment was closer to the truth, when he admitted it would be better for Tottenham to "go home" to White Hart Lane after they lost in Monaco. The club has an ambitious project to build a new stadium and they had no choice but to play European football away from White Hart Lane this season, but it would have surely been different in N17.
It is difficult to blame Pochettino for the defeat to Gent after he played nearly his strongest team in both legs. He was let down by 11 players in Belgium, while Alli was the villain at Wembley.
The manager, however, has not been blameless. His decision to rest bench Jan Vertonghen and Kyle Walker for the must-win game in Monaco was short-sighted and it was not the first time he made poor decisions in the group -- starting Sissoko against Bayer Leverkusen at Wembley was another.
Pochettino has not done anything in this European campaign to allay fears that he is a good planner but lacking the instinct to change matches at the very highest level. His tactics have been poor, too, and he has often tinkered with the system too much, as he did in Gent.
Ultimately, blame for Spurs' European struggles does not lie at Wembley or with Pochettino but with the players.
Injuries have certainly been a mitigating factor and Danny Rose was again missing for both legs against Gent -- the defeat in Monaco was the first time Harry Kane, Hugo Lloris and Mousa Dembele had started together in the Champions League and Spurs were still without Toby Alderweireld and Erik Lamela -- but too few of the fit players stepped up.
When Spurs played Champions League football in 2010-11, Gareth Bale and Luka Modric rose to the occasion and found their level. This time, only goalkeeper Lloris seemed inspired by the European stage and too many of Spurs' big players failed to perform.
Pochettino accused them of a lack of passion after the defeat to Monaco at Wembley and having looked overwhelmed and inexperienced in that game, Spurs never recovered to show anything different. A lack of experience is one thing, but after years of similar issues, questions must be asked about why the club are not able to mirror their domestic performances in Europe.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.