Four games to define Spurs’ season

by Rachel Lara Cohen (26/2/23).

Above: Tottenham Hotspur’s Celin Bizet plays the ball in against Liverpool earlier this season. Photo: Spurs Women.

Tottenham Hotpur are on a seven-game losing streak in the WSL. This is relegation form. Yet, ironically, with the addition of Mana Iwabuchi and Bethany England, plus Ashleigh Neville’s return from suspension, Spurs’ are looking better and, in contrast to their pre-Christmas games, scoring goals.

The problem has been that Spurs’ strengthening has coincided with a run of games against top-four teams (Chelsea twice; Manchester United once). Losing to these teams is not a disgrace and should not be season-defining. But when these losses follow on and extend a poor run, the losses can contribute to general feeling of malaise. Playing better but not getting anything out of games is disheartening. It also makes it hard to evaluate the team or the manager.

Above: Bethany England scores against Manchester United. Photo: @Spurswomen

That is why the next four games are crucial, both for how Spurs finish the season, but also perhaps, the future of manager, Rehanne Skinner. Indeed, the four games – Reading (home) in the FA Cup, Manchester City (away), Liverpool (away) and Leicester (home) in the WSL – may now be season-defining.

The following looks at the games one-by-one. It concludes by reflecting on where we may be once all four are played.

1)    Reading (home) FA Cup 26th February

Reading are two points and two places below Spurs in the WSL. They have also lost their last four WSL games.  In other words, they are exactly the kind of WSL opponents Spurs should be savouring the opportunity to play.

Additionally, Tottenham have already played Reading twice. Both games were away. The first, in the Conti Cup, Spurs won 2-1 (with goals from Ashleigh Neville and Nikola Karczewska and a late Reading penalty from Natasha Dowie). But Reading won the second in the WSL 1-0, benefitting from an own goal from Amy Turner. The positive takeaway from these is, however, that Reading did not score against Spurs from open play in either game this season.

Above: Nikola Karczewska scores against Reading earlier this season.
Photo: @Spurswomen

Winning the game against Reading will not affect Spurs’ WSL form. But it would be the first win against a WSL side since beating Brighton in that increasingly anomalous and now long-ago 8-0.

A convincing win (by at least a two-goal margin) would signal the team’s progress, not only in the context of the current losing run, but also in comparison to the stuttering wins that marked Spurs’ early-season (Brighton excepted). It would also provide a much-needed, confidence boost before the team returns to the WSL.

More practically, a win would mean Spurs progressing in the FA Cup, giving the team something (other than a highly unwanted relegation battle) to play for as the season draws towards a close. Indeed, a cup run is not unthinkable with the fifth-round draw meaning that at least one of Chelsea or Arsenal go out this round (as they play each other) and that at least two lower league teams are guaranteed a berth in the quarter-finals.

Conversely, a loss to Reading would be a bad sign, suggesting that the team has not found a way to translate the improved play we have seen in 2023 into results.

2)    Manchester City (away) 5th March

Manchester City are in blistering form. Their front three (Lauren Hemp, Bunny Shaw, and Chloe Kelly) made a starry Arsenal defence look utterly chaotic in their last WSL game. Meanwhile, their midfield, which struggled a little at the start of the season is coming together, with Yui Hasegawa and Filippa Angeldal (both new arrivals last summer) now settled.

When the two sides last met in mid-October, Spurs were beaten 3-0. It was not the North Londoners worst performance, but the score was fair: Spurs were clearly second best. This was also the game in which Ellie Brazil was injured in the eighth minute while playing in the nine position. Her substitution meant a not-fully-fit Jessica Naz was required to play out of position for 80+ minutes. Unsurprisingly chances were few and far between.

Since then, both sides have improved. Manchester City’s already impressive front-three seem to have reached another level. But Spurs are also finding ways to score and if both Bethany England and Niki Karczewska are available should be able to find the back of the net.

Which is to say that the odds are in favour of Spurs racking up an eighth successive WSL loss. But other things are possible. And a close(r) game than last time out would be a reasonable expectation. If Tottenham were to get a point, it would feel like a win. And be a massive sign of progress. In short:

  • A draw or a win would signal a significant turnaround in the season.
  • A loss to Manchester City in which Spurs played well, if it came after a win against Reading, would be disappointing but not reason to lose optimism.
  • A very bad loss to Manchester City (by 3 goals or more), or a loss that came without a win in the game against Reading, could damage confidence.

3)    Liverpool (away) 12th March

When fans looked at Spurs’ fixture list in the new year, especially after the cancellation of the home game against Leicester City, the away game at Liverpool stood out as the next obviously ‘winnable’ game.

That is not to diminish the opposition in this game. But Liverpool lie just two points ahead of Spurs in the WSL and are one of only three teams that Tottenham have beaten this season in the league. That victory, a one-nil win in October was Spurs’ first home game of the season and first-ever game at Brisbane Road.

That day the home side were entirely dominant for the first half but could not find a way to increase an 11th-minute lead that had come from an own goal (Niamh Fahey tapping in a Celin Bizet cross from the back-line). Spurs then faded badly after the break and Liverpool were perhaps unlucky not to equalise, but were also poor in the final third.

Above: Celin Bizet crosses the ball for a goal in Spurs last game against Liverpool. Photo: @Spurswomen

Since then Liverpool have had a busy January transfer window, bringing in five players (three from the US) and strengthening across the pitch. That includes the return of former-captain, Gemma Bonner in defence and the introduction of highly-rated Japanese international, Fuka Nagano in midfield. In the first game back after the break, they lost 6-0 to Manchester United, but as new signings have bedded in they have steadied with a couple of close losses and a win against Reading.

For all that, this is the best opportunity Spurs have for drawing a line under their WSL losing run (assuming the Manchester City game goes to form and they do not do it then). Given the length of the run (potentially eight games by the time of this fixture) it will be critical that it ends decisively. That makes this a must-win game. Anything less than a decisive win here will feel like failure. Practically, it would also mean that a relegation battle is more likely.

4)    Leicester City (home) 15th March

This is the game that should have been played on the 22nd January.

If it had been played then, and, if Spurs had won it their losing run would have ended after five losses (before outings against Chelsea, Manchester United, or Manchester City). But a frozen pitch meant that wasn’t to be.

Above: Eveliina Sumanen in Spurs 2-1 win over Leicester to start the season. Photo: @Spurswomen

Spurs began this season winning away at Leicester with sumptious goals from Ashleigh Neville (a shot from 40 yards out that won Goal of the Month) and from Drew Spence. For Leicester, that game kicked off a nine-game losing run, after which they looked nailed on for relegation.

And then came new manager, Willie Kirk, and five new January signings, perhaps most critically, goalkeeper Jamina Leitzig. Leitzig is on loan from Bayern Munich and is a top keeper with experience in the Champions League and a save percentage in the 99th percentile. She has, arguably, been as transformational for Leicester as Rachel Daly was at the other end of the field for Aston Villa. For instance, she made 15 saves against Manchester City (despite Leicester eventually losing 2-0) and kept clean sheets against Brighton and Liverpool to ensure Leicester won these games.

In short, even with a Beth England-powered attacking line-up, Leicester will be a difficult team to score against.

But before they face Spurs, Leicester have two tough WSL games: against Manchester United and Everton. That means that they may also be targeting this fixture as a possible place to pick up the points they will need to avoid the drop. In other words, this could be a classic six-pointer.  

On the upside, if Tottenham do win at Liverpool and then again here, it would put the team on a clear upwards trajectory and, on 15+ points, likely clear of relegation trouble. For comparison, at season end the bottom two teams in 2021-22 were on 11 and 13 points; in 2020-21 they were on 12 and 14.

Conversely, irrespective of what happens against Liverpool, a loss here could pull Spurs back down into or close to the relegation zone.

Where might Spurs be after these games?

Having taken each game one at a time, what should Tottenham fans be looking out for when they think of them as a block? Based on the logic laid out above I suggest the following ‘mood-ometer‘ – for Spurs fans based on the combined results of these games.

Spurs’ outcome from the four gamesMood
More than six points gained AND still in FA CupOptimism-a-go-go
Six points AND still in FA CupRealistically upbeat
Six or more points BUT out of FA CupCalm if unexcited
Four-Five points AND still in FA CupIntermittent nail biting and hope
Four-Five points BUT out of the FA CupMild gloom
Two-Three points, whether in FA Cup or notProper fretting
One or fewer points, whether in FA Cup or notPanic stations

As noted at the start of this article, there are good signs and cause to hope that these games will leave Spurs fans in a much better place than they now find themselves (relatively secure in the league and still in the FA Cup). But until all four games are done, most Spurs fans, will be anxiously watching on.

Not least because the game that follows on from the last of these four, is the home North London Derby. And everyone knows that Spurs need to come into that game in winning form.

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