ottenham’s PR machine kicked into overdrive after Sunday’s humiliation at Newcastle, with Daniel Levy’s message to supporters, in which he took “ultimate responsibility” for the result, followed by the players promising to reimburse travelling fans for their tickets and the club establishing a fan advisory board.
Some frank communication from Levy and supporter representation at board level are both good things, but no amount of positive pronouncements can banish the memory of St James’ Park, nor the escalating fury at the chairman’s running of the club.
The atmosphere for the visit of Manchester United is sure to be febrile following Spurs’s latest nadir on Tyneside and the subsequent dismissal of a second head coach, Cristian Stellini, in the space of 29 days.
There will be a desire to get behind Stellini’s successor Ryan Mason, one of the club’s favourite sons, but if the team struggles, fans are likely to turn on Levy en masse and the stadium could quickly become toxic — just as in Mason’s last home game as interim head coach, a 2-1 defeat by Aston Villa in May 2021, following the sacking of Jose Mourinho.
Levy’s decision to overlook Mason for Stellini when the club parted ways with Antonio Conte on March 26 was the chairman’s latest mis-step, and the Italian’s disastrous four-game interregnum has severely impacted Spurs’s chances of returning to the top four, even if they beat fourth-placed United.
Mason, who wasted no time in putting himself forward for the permanent job, has demanded “a reaction” from the players tonight, but played down the chances of making wholesale changes after just two days of training.
Stellini’s decision to switch to a back four at St James’ backfired spectacularly and Mason, who used a 4-2-3-1 system in the final six games of 2020-21, said he had to be “realistic” in setting up the side against United and played down the significance of his formation.
“The most important thing is a reaction,” Mason told Standard Sport, when asked if he had the players to use a back four. We have to be realistic and understand we’ve got injuries in key areas, which probably haven’t been spoken about enough. We’ve got some key players missing in key areas of the pitch.
“The formation is the formation. The most important thing for me is how you approach the game: the aggression, the passion, the desire to run and compete as a team, because we’ve seen many different formations and systems be successful over the years.
“Arguably, Tottenham’s most successful recent season [2016-17] came with three at the back. That’s just football. The fans buy into and connect with the feeling they get from players, not the system or formation.”
The injuries Mason referred to include Emerson Royal, who is still sidelined, and fellow defenders Ben Davies and Clement Lenglet, who may not be fit enough to start, thereby limiting the options at the back.
Mason could make changes up front, where both Dejan Kulusevski and Heung-min Son have disappointed throughout the campaign, and Richarlison and loanee Arnaut Danjuma are pushing for minutes.
Harry Kane was the only player to emerge from Sunday’s game with any credit after scoring a second-half consolation goal, and United are reported to be preparing to test the club’s resolve to keep their talisman in the summer.
Mason yesterday brushed aside a question about whether he could help persuade his friend to sign a new deal, but part of his role for the next five weeks will be to remind everyone, inside and outside of the club, that Spurs still have plenty going for them and remain an attractive proposition.
European football is still on the line, but after the misery and chaos of the past few weeks, results almost feel secondary to Mason helping to restore the connection with fans and lifting a group of players who were eviscerated by Conte in the media and humiliated under Stellini on the pitch.
“Honestly, I believe in this group and I believe in these players,” the 31-year-old said.
“Last season we finished the campaign exceptionally well — and sometimes in football it is a deeper thing than just having players. It is more about the environment and the mindset or confidence. There are so many factors that can affect results.
“Ultimately, I believe in this group and I believe in the individuals as well. That is the most important thing.”