Are Spurs serial bottlers, or do they simply keep hitting their ceiling?

Even Spurs fans have started calling their team 'bottlers' after yet another semi-final defeat. But is that missing the point?

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In the aftermath of a defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final, Tottenham Hotspur’s players and staff once again faced taunts about their perceived lack of resolve on big occasions. Even the club’s own supporters seemed to get in on the act:

The loss, which is the eighth time they have been knocked out at that stage of the competition since they last reached the final in 1991, followed an equally ignominious exit in the Champions League Round of 16 at the hands of Juventus in March, and extends their trophyless streak to ten years.

But does this long and repetitive history of defeats make Tottenham ‘bottlers’? Or is it simply an indication of their place in the football world?

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There’s no denying that Spurs have stumbled repeatedly at the penultimate FA Cup hurdle. Of their eight semis since 1991, they’ve lost on five occasions to teams who have finished below them in the league – most notably in 2009/10 when they went out to a Portsmouth side who ended up dead last in the Premier League, and in 1994/95 to 15th-placed Everton.

Certainly, it’s surprising that they haven’t emerged victorious at the semi-final stage even once out of eight. But it’s not as if they’ve gone into all of those matches expected to sweep into the final.

Arguably, only the Pompey game was a major upset.

Can you really ‘bottle it’ if you lose to a better team, as was visibly the case in nearly half these ties? And is it ‘bottling it’ to lose to a side who are roughly about the same level as you?

It’s also worth noting that on just two of those occasions did Spurs surrender a lead – against United last Saturday and in 2000/01 to an Arsenal side eight places above them in the league.

So, in reality, there’s just as much of an argument to put the FA Cup losing streak down to coincidence as there is to attribute it to some nebulous ‘losing mentality’.

When it comes to the league, some would make the case that Tottenham choked in 2015/16, when they seemed to be on Leicester City’s tail in the Premier League title race. But they were never really in the hunt. Leicester cruised it, with that infamous Spurs defeat to Chelsea only a tangential battle in the war.

As for that recent loss to Juve, in light of the bianconeri‘s exploits against Real Madrid the Italian side’s comeback at Wembley was surely as much down to their own excellence as to any failings on Tottenham’s part.

Oh and, by the way, has everyone suddenly forgotten just how mediocre Spurs have been for the majority of the past 27 years? Perhaps they kept losing because, well, they haven’t actually been very good. Perhaps they were doing well to even be reaching semi-finals in the first place.

After all, it’s only very recently that they have returned to a state of being considered anything other than a bit of a joke by the wider football world.

Clearly, the bad old days of Jacques Santini and Christian Gross are behind them.

But the Pochettino era has drawn a veil over what was an utterly barren spell in Tottenham’s history. One which arguably ran right up to the moment the Argentinian was appointed.

Poch has transformed the playing staff and turned Spurs into an excellent side, in the process drastically raising expectations at White Hart Lane, which is probably what has led the ‘bottler’ accusation to be thrown at the current side after that performance against United.

Supporters correctly believe the club has moved out of the dark ages, only to have been reminded by Alexis Sanchez and Ander Herrera that there are still four or five bigger, richer and more successful teams in England. Despite top-three finishes in 2016 and 2017, Spurs have not yet truly earned a place at the top table alongside the likes of United, Liverpool and the petroclubs.

And so, in a way, the ‘bottler’ narrative suits not just the crueller rival fans, but also Spurs fans themselves.

It suggests that Tottenham Hotspur in its current form is something more than just a mid-ranking side going through a purple-patch. It suggests that a club that has won fewer top-tier titles than the likes of Huddersfield Town, Wolves and Blackburn is actually one of the heavyweights of English football, a sleeping giant fallen victim to its own idiosyncrasies.

Such a notion is, perhaps, the only way to stave off the unwelcome reality that, yet again, a ceiling has been hit.

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