One of the two clubs on show in the Stadion Maksimir in Zagreb, Croatia on Thursday night was in the midst of a full-blown institutional crisis. From the action that unfolded on the pitch, you would never have guessed which.
Going into the game, the Dinamo Zagreb manager Zdravko Mamic had resigned from his position having been sentenced to four years and eight months in prison. He was adjudged to have been one of four people involved in a scheme that diverted $18.3m into their own bank accounts from transfer fees that should have gone to Dinamo.
Mamic still denies any wrongdoing, but the decision coming between the two legs of Dinamo’s last-16 Europa League tie with Tottenham Hotspur was the last thing the institution or the soccer team that represents it needed.
Still, they produced. Dinamo’s 3-0 win on the night was incredible. The circumstances in which it came make it almost miraculous. From around the 30th minute of the match until the 120th, when the referee blew the final whistle on the second half of extra time, the Croatian champions dominated and outplayed José Mourinho’s Spurs.
Forward Mislav Orsic had scored three, two of them spectacular, but the whole team had played with commitment and panache, putting on a display of one and two-touch passing soccer. By the end, they were more than worthy of their margin of victory. And in so being, they had managed to thrust their opponent into a crisis that feels, in north London at least, almost as profound and dramatic as Dinamo’s own.
After losing to Arsenal in the derby at the weekend – and playing atrociously for 75 minutes of that game – Spurs needed a boost in Zagreb. They were 2-0 up from the first-leg, so looked like they had one foot in the quarter-finals. An away goal would have out the tie to bed. Yet as ex-Arsenal and current Dinamo midfielder Robbie Burton told i before last week’s first leg, “We’ve been underestimated in a lot of the games we’ve played in Europe.”
Tottenham appear to have committed the same mistake and now it is Dinamo going through to the last eight of a competition that had been hyped up as a potential route to salvage Spurs’ season. It feels like a nadir in Tottenham’s recent history.
Finger pointing started immediately after the game and will continue for some time. Captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was the first to have a go; quite explosively, too. “It’s just a disgrace,” said the Frenchman. “The team at the moment is just a reflection of what is going on in the club. We have lack of basics, lack of fundamentals, the performance is in relation of that.
“To behave as a team is the most difficult thing in football,” he continued. “Whatever is the decision of the manager, you have to follow the way of the team. If you follow the team only when you are in the starting XI, that causes big problems. At one moment you are going to pay in your season. We had great moments in the past because you could trust the togetherness. Today, I’m not sure about that.”
It was a damning indictment, the sort you rarely here aired in public by professional sports people. It also raises questions, mainly who and why?
Lloris was keen to exculpate his manager, emphasizing that Mourinho sent them out to be positive and attack. The cynics may say that is only natural as Lloris wants to be picked at the weekend. Yet while there are plenty of observers ready to lay this defeat and Spurs’ recent poor form at the door of the Portuguese coach – and he certainly shares his portion of the blame – let us take Lloris at his word.
The captain’s statement suggests there are other issues, most notably with the players who are not getting as much first-team action as they might like. Lloris’ words also suggest that lack of commitment at a squad level is a result of some disarray or disorganization higher up – and if that is not in the manager’s office, then one imagines he is referring to decisions made by chairman Daniel Levy.
It is a worrying situation if so. Whatever Lloris’ opinion of Mourinho, the current situation is making Levy’s decision to fire Mauricio Pochettino and bring in the former Manchester United and Real Madrid boss in November 2019 on a $19m-a-year contract look an increasingly futile one.
If there is a lack of commitment from members of the squad – if they are not training well and not giving their maximum when they are picked – then surely the solution was an overhaul of the playing staff, rather than a change of manager. Mourinho has clearly not be able to bring more from those players than they were producing prior to his arrival and has brought little else in terms of a fresh tactical approach or renewed sense of purpose.
Levy failed to move on a lot of the players that did so well under Pochettino when they were at their most valuable, which would in turn have raised funds to bring in new faces. Now, the club appears to be paying the price for that inertia.
As much as Tottenham fans may pine for their Argentinian former coach, that is now water under the bridge. The real question is where Spurs go from here. A renewal in the squad may be needed but will not come cheap. Levy will have to work out whether he can raise the funds for such a rebuild and decide, if he can, whether Mourinho is the right man to oversee it.