LONDON — There really is no place like home and don’t Tottenham know it. They have certainly made every effort to make Wembley feel like “home” after their temporary move to the national stadium while White Hart Lane is being rebuilt, but for all the Tottenham banners, flags and even the executive box windows bearing a frosted image of the club crest, Wembley is still anything but home for Mauricio Pochettino’s players.
Having signed off at White Hart Lane in May with an unbeaten home record in the Premier League last season, Spurs started life at the new place with a defeat as Chelsea bounced back from their opening day loss at home to Burnley with a 2-1 victory.
The champions had just two shots on target — both from Marcos Alonso — yet it was enough to win a game Spurs had dominated for long periods.
“It is nothing to do with the stadium,” Spurs defender Ben Davies insisted after the game. “We put in a decent performance today and on another day, we could have won.”
In cold, clear analysis, Spurs did have enough chances to win the game. They performed well, but playing at Wembley has become an issue for all those unquantifiable reasons that permeate the game. Just like there is no reason why a centre-forward will score readily against one team but rarely against another — Harry Kane has still never scored a Premier League goal in August during his career — there is no definitive factor to ensure that Spurs must suffer an ongoing nightmare at Wembley.
But this defeat will only make matters worse for Pochettino and his team, considering it’s their seventh Wembley defeat in nine games.
The doubts, which were already there after last season’s disastrous Champions League campaign that ended in group stage elimination after home defeats against Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco, will only grow among the players and supporters after this loss. Spurs have now won just two of their 11 games at Wembley since the stadium was re-opened in 2007, and they have not been able to keep a clean sheet in any of them.
In recent seasons at White Hart Lane, Tottenham developed a sense of invincibility and a belief that they could always get a result on home turf. At Wembley, it is the opposite. Spurs lose more often than they win, and playing there has become their kryptonite.
The psychology of sport is often a key factor in separating the winners from the losers, and Spurs must find a way to overcome their mental block at Wembley if they are to have any hope of challenging for the Premier League title this season. Burnley are the visitors next Sunday, giving Spurs the opportunity to banish the negativity before it really begins to pervade their home games.
But Tottenham’s poor record at Wembley is not just a trick of the mind. There are genuine factors that make the stadium a less favourable venue for them than White Hart Lane. For a start, there is the pitch.
White Hart Lane had one of the smallest pitches in the Premier League, and it suited Tottenham’s high-pressing, energetic style of play. They were able to bully opponents, close them down and suffocate the space at White Hart Lane, at the same time as being urged on by a noisy, passionate crowd close the pitch.
Wembley is a different matter. The overall playing area at White Hart Lane was 6,700 square metres but it is 7,245 square metres at Wembley, which is 5 metres longer and a metre wider than Tottenham’s old pitch. So there is a lot more ground to cover at Wembley, and more space for opponents to play without being hurried or rushed by Pochettino’s men.
By moving home, Spurs have surrendered one of their biggest advantages in terms of their pitch, and it is something they have so far been unable to resolve at Wembley. Last season, when they played five times at the stadium, they won just once: a meaningless Champions League group game against CSKA Moscow. So while they were unbeatable at White Hart Lane last season, their Wembley record since the start of last season reads L-L-W-D-L-L.
And here’s another of those unquantifiable reasons: Opponents know that they can get under Tottenham’s skin at Wembley and capitalise on their doubts. The crowd goes quieter, momentum cannot be sustained quite as long and, inevitably, questions begin to pop into the minds of the Spurs players.
“What can we do? What can I do?” said Pochettino. “[Our Wembley record] is a perception from the media.
“I said before and will say it again” it is not about Wembley, it is about our performance. Playing that way, we can win lots of games.”
Until Spurs can make Wembley feel like home, a place were victories are the norm rather than a rarity, the questions will continue to be posed.
Maybe it is all just a coincidence and nothing more than sheer bad luck. But Spurs did not have these problems at White Hart Lane, so the head-scratching will go on. For Pochettino, though, it is all about focusing on the positives. “We are one step ahead than last season,” he said. “We were much better in every aspect of the game than Chelsea, they were just clinical.
“I am not frustrated or upset. I am happy with the performance of the players. We are working hard. There are plenty of games to play.”
In the Premier League, there are 18 more to come at Wembley.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_