Tottenham Hotspur will always cherish memories of injury-time drama and Lucas Moura. Just not from the 94th minute at Anfield in 2023. Next Monday will mark the fourth anniversary of arguably Spurs’ greatest moment of the 21st century, the 96th-minute, hat-trick strike against Ajax in Amsterdam that sent Mauricio Pochettino’s team into the Champions League final.
Four years on, it came down to the Brazilian again. This time, Moura was in his own half. This time, he lost his nerve. As Alisson punted the ball forward, an ersatz wing-back tried to cushion a pass to Cristian Romero, instead picked out Diogo Jota and saw a substitute score. Liverpool 4 Tottenham 3 and, in a season when Moura has not scored, he has arguably cost Spurs three points in two April cameos on Merseyside. They were leading 1-0 at Everton before a needless, dangerous challenge saw him sent off and them draw. His return from suspension came at Anfield. In a different way, it went just as badly. Maybe Moura should never visit Liverpool.
He will leave in the summer and this season has been a sad coda to his Tottenham career. There were 15 goals in 2018-19, none now. Four years on, a team has fallen apart: there are tales of decline, some due to ageing, some fast-tracked. There are the ones who got away. There is the one who may yet get away. Tottenham may have the worst kind of closure to the Pochettino era when, instead of welcoming back their most beloved manager for many a decade, they may see him appointed by Chelsea.
If the 2019 team stood on the brink of greatness, their individual fates help tell a tale of where it has gone wrong for Tottenham in what feel like four wasted years. Two of Moura’s trio in Amsterdam, including the winner, were assisted by Dele Alli: at 27, he could be a £100m player by now. Instead, he left Spurs on a free transfer and languishes unwanted at Everton, with Besiktas ending his loan early. He scored a mere three goals this season. His has been an extraordinary, almost inexplicable slide.
Others have faded fast. At 32, Danny Rose is already retired. At 31, Victor Wanyama has spent the last three years playing for Montreal. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen were already in their thirties in 2019; now Spurs don’t have a defender as reliable as either was in his prime, while they are back in their homeland. So is Moussa Sissoko, now of Nantes. Hugo Lloris may be nearing the end, too, and his most recent action for Tottenham was to concede five goals in 21 minutes at Newcastle before being substituted at half-time.
But Kieran Trippier, sold to Atletico Madrid in 2019, is a far better right-back than any of those Tottenham bought to play in his stead, whether Serge Aurier, Matt Doherty, Emerson Royal or Pedro Porro, whose defensive deficiencies were exposed at Anfield. Spurs have spent £100m downgrading the position.
Christian Eriksen left for a cut-price fee in January 2020 and Spurs have no creativity in midfield now: the £100m duo of Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso, supposed to add another dimension, are out on loan now.
Some of it feels like financial mismanagement. Spurs will get no money for Moura when his contract expires, just as Alli, Rose and Vertonghen left on free transfers. They only recouped small fees for Wanyama and Sissoko. The majority of a team that reached the Champions League final will bring in less than £10m; Spurs neither had success by keeping them nor sold them for fees that funded a rebuild. Eriksen, meanwhile, went on the cheap before his contract expired.
There are two others to consider, potentially the last survivors of the 2019 team, certainly the figureheads of the post-Pochettino side. Son Heung-min has had a troubled season but was terrific at Anfield, scoring one goal, making another, hitting the woodwork twice. He has 78 goals since the Champions League final.
Harry Kane, who missed the Ajax semi-final and was semi-fit for the final, has 111 in the same time. There was a point when Moura, Eriksen and Alli contributed to a formidable attacking armoury of players all able to score and create. Since then, they have become hugely over-reliant on two men, achieving less even as they have scored more than virtually anyone else.
In a four-year period ending in 2019, Spurs finished third, second, third and fourth. Since then, they have come sixth, seventh, fourth and are now sixth which, as Brighton have three games in hand, feels in effect seventh now.
Moura’s exit will come laced in nostalgia, but the loss of another of the class of 2019 would harm the team rather more now. Kane fell a long way short of pledging his future to Spurs. “I live in the moment and give 110 per cent every day and every place I am,” said their record scorer. If he goes it would be a definitive break with the past. But Moura illustrates how Spurs’ recent past is infinitely preferable to their present.