For all the tension in that penalty shoot-out for Tottenham Hotspur, it is not as great as the tension at the core of how this squad is managed. The latter certainly played a large part in the story of this latest cup defeat against Chelsea.
On the one side, there is the increasing danger that this exciting core of players – that has so enlivened the Premier League and the history of the club – could end up being broken up without ever winning anything together. A fear that will only now grow after every defeat like this, after every trophy that passes them by.
On the other side, there is the fact that two of the most prominent of that core – Harry Kane and Dele Alli – were not even playing in this game.
That alone explains why Mauricio Pochettino was “disappointed”, but by no means dejected. Amid one of the worst injury crises he has faced, and with a team where every one of the starting XI has endured a fitness problem at some point this season, Spurs did well to respond to going behind and then go the distance.
“We made an unbelievable effort,” Pochettino argued. “This season we are fighting not only with the opponents with everything that’s happened. That is not an excuse.”
He then went on to argue why and put up a very fair case as to why this was not the “Spursy bottle job” many will argue.
“When you assess that pre-season when we were the team most affected by the World Cup, lots of circumstances. Fixtures were crazy. It put us in a very difficult moment. It was a massive challenge for us after the World Cup, and we know the circumstances. We are managing very well the situation.
“Today we are disappointed, but it’s a massive success to play against Watford, West Ham, Arsenal and then 2-2 here. You can only feel proud of the team and the effort we made. Yes, of course, disappointed and we are very sad we cannot play another game at Wembley, but competing in that way we can arrive at the end of the season doing well.”
There’s also the reality that Pochettino would much rather have Kane and Alli and pretty much all his most prominent players fit for the bigger challenges of the Premier League and Champions League.
One of the reasons he plays such weakened teams in earlier rounds – and before they get within a genuine chance of glory – is because of how limited his squad is compared to better-resourced rivals, who are better equipped to fight on more fronts.
It is a calculated gamble he is willing to take because he realises he needs to have that core fully firing in order to over-perform in the league as they’ve often done.
Spurs have thereby managed that tension well, but it should also be a source of frustration.
This is the clash of a certain realpolitik against the glory that fires the imagination that football is really about.
Pochettino is not the only one making a calculation, balancing a situation. There is also Daniel Levy. This defeat emphasised how Spurs now need something to lift the club even more – and especially a signing. It is that irritating dilemma, and knock-on effect.
The club might actually be in the League Cup final had they signed the forward they needed, but the defeat has only meant they need the boost of a signing even more.
It does feel a little needless that Pochettino’s chances of ending his and Spurs’ trophy droughts essentially hung on the fact he had to pretty much put out anyone who was fit enough to start.
At the same time, there are those that believe that – as much as anything – the Argentine actually revels in the perception of him as a manager who defies the odds; who can achieve alchemic feats.
There’s also another tension. Pochettino’s repeated over-performance in regularly reaching the Champions League will mean far more to his international reputation as a manager than any domestic cup win. This is why he so prioritises the primary competitions.
But what of his legacy at the club? He will go down as one of their greatest managers regardless, but it his era will feel that little bit hollower if there is no one trophy to touch from it; no day to truly remember.
There is a tension in that as well. It is one that, for all the progress and overachievement, the club still hasn’t overcome.
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