It is not easy trying to build a successful football team. It takes time, money and patience. It’s an all-too-familiar feeling for any Tottenham Hotspur fan.
Tottenham Hotspur Women have had all three of those key ingredients put towards their project over the past few seasons, but at present, Rehanne Skinner’s side are drifting.
Wednesday’s 3-1 Continental Cup quarter-final defeat to Chelsea was the latest in a string of poor results for the north London side. Spurs have lost their past five games in the league, with their last win coming at the end of October, an 8-0 victory against Brighton & Hove Albion. Since then, their only two wins have come in Continental Cup group matches against second-tier opposition.
Spurs’ concerning slide, which has left them eighth in the Women’s Super League table and only six points clear of relegation, has been even more disappointing given their busy recruitment in back-to-back transfer windows.
In the summer, Spurs brought in experienced WSL players Drew Spence, Angharad James and Amy Turner, added Polish forward Nikola Karczewska and splashed out on exciting Norwegian midfielder Celin Bizet from Paris Saint-Germain.
In January, they broke the WSL domestic transfer record with a reported £250,000 ($310,000) move for Bethany England from Chelsea and added highly rated midfielder Mana Iwabuchi on loan from rivals Arsenal.
On paper, Skinner has been bringing together pieces of an exciting jigsaw but on Wednesday, it was hard to work out what they’re actually trying to build.
Skinner had early success when she arrived at Tottenham in November 2020. She made her team organised, hard to beat and good at nicking goals from set pieces. Spurs picked up points and finished the season in eighth, well clear of the drop.
In Skinner’s second season, Spurs built more of a counter-attacking threat and even managed to pick up points against top sides. The pace and aggression of Ashley Neville became a key outlet and alongside a best-ever result in a cup competition — reaching the semi-finals of the Continental Cup — Skinner steered Tottenham to fifth. She was awarded a new contract at the end of the season and it seemed Spurs would only be looking up from then on.
But things have gone backwards. In Bizet — who is desperate to play on the front foot — and Iwabuchi, Tottenham have brought in players who want the ball and can do exciting things with it, but the team struggle to hold possession. Iwabuchi had few effective touches on Wednesday.
Spurs’ counter-attacking style has become a crutch, a reason to sit in and be dragged side to side, especially against a team such as Chelsea. Going forward, Spurs have resorted to long balls, hoping England can hold it up to play in or off Rosella Ayane, but it’s a tough task, especially against experienced defenders with the quality of Millie Bright.
It’s fairly damning that holding midfielder Spence, who got a consolation goal on Wednesday, and winger Neville have racked up the most touches in the attacking penalty area of any Spurs players in the league this season (28 and 22). England managed four touches in the penalty area on her debut against Aston Villa, a match in which she scored but Spurs ultimately lost 2-1.
The robust, hard-to-break-down foundation that was at Spurs’ core is now nowhere to be seen. Against Chelsea, the team came together for a quick huddle after Fran Kirby scored the visitors’ second, and there were arms outstretched and lots of shaking of heads. There was frustration from the fans too. A few shouts of “what?” greeted Skinner’s second-half substitution of new signing Iwabuchi, who hasn’t played a lot of minutes this season and was replaced by Chioma Ubogagu.
Beyond simple counter-attacking and playing it long, it is hard to know what this Spurs team are trying to do. It doesn’t seem as if they’re effectively using the talent they’ve spent plenty of money recruiting.
After this cup defeat, Skinner reflected on her team still being a work in progress, even at this point in the season. “It’s taken a longer transition is the honest assessment,” she said. “The way we played last year, the way we are in terms of our identity, has taken a bit of time to get all of the players functioning the same way.
“Tonight, you saw a desire to fight for everything, probably more than we have this season, but definitely more what we looked like last year. That’s what we’re building towards with players who have got very good technical qualities but that need to step up every single time we come on the pitch. They’ve got to fight for everything. I’m really pleased with the performance. The result is not what we want but the performance is much, much better.”
Skinner also admitted her team haven’t looked themselves, adding, “The first thing we have to get right is we have to be harder to beat than we were in the first half of the season. That was the bit for me that was the most disappointing compared to how we operated last year.”
Skinner seems confident the fighting spirit that has been so crucial to her team’s relative success is returning. The late goal and confidence boost from Spence might be important signs of life, but Tottenham’s issues run deeper than just spirit. There needs to be an identity, a strategy that works with all the talent and ability in the squad. There’s time to turn it around and even build it into something great, but there needs to be an end to this tricky run.
(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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