A year ago, on the accession of Antonio Conte to the Tottenham throne, if you had told Spurs supporters that 365 days later they would be bound for the knockout stages of the Champions League having topped their group, you would have found precious few complaints. And yet, now, you would do well to quibble with anyone inclined to grumble, even after tonight's events.
Yes, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg thumped Spurs to top spot in Group D at the death, Conte's side scrabbling over a field that looked more underwhelming with every passing week. Two wins would suggest that Tottenham have draggled themselves out of the quicksand they found themselves in after their defeats to Manchester United and Newcastle.
But little on the pitch suggests that. Blow the final whistle a few moments earlier at the Vitality Stadium and the Stade Velodrome and Spurs would be winless in five. The closing minutes count just as much as any others, but should a team of this quality on paper need every one of the 90 minutes and a few more to find their way past midtable opposition in the Premier League and Ligue 1?
Beyond the winning, this isn't what Spurs should expect of Conte a year in. It seems almost unreasonable to compare where they are to where they were after Nuno Espirito Santo's disastrous interregnum. Of course they are better now than then, but that should not be the limit of expectations for one of Europe's best (and most well remunerated managers). Conte, one suspects, could have fallen flat on his face and he would still have cleared the bar Nuno had set.
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Instead, it is reasonable to compare the team that ended last season, a swashbuckling side that could put ordinary opponents to the sword and that rarely if ever allowed ordinary opponents to impose their game on them. They would not be cowed by the hostility of the home crowd. That was a side that might have felt it could have matched Europe's best in the latter stages of this competition. Several months and £150million later, they look an inferior team, one further now from competing for the big honors that Conte prides himself on winning. They might still be in the Champions League, but if the Italian wanted a realistic chance of hoisting continental honors in the new year he would have been better advised to tank into the Europa League. None of the teams in pot two should hold any fear for Tottenham. Tottenham, though, might just be the group winner everyone else wants, even ahead of Porto.
There are excuses and mitigating factors. When Heung-min Son went off with a head injury at the half hour mark, Spurs found themselves playing without three of their four most senior forwards, the South Korean joining Richarlison and Dejan Kulusevski on the sidelines. The latter in particular has been missed greatly throughout the intense run of games of last month but it is baffling that Spurs allowed themselves just one truly creative player in their squad. Perhaps this team also missed Conte's stalking presence on the touchline, the Italian instead scowling from on high in the Stade Velodrome after last week's red card.
Certainly the absence of their manager's barked instructions might explain why Tottenham persevered in such a baffling fashion for so long. No one would confuse this team with Brazil 1970 (or even Chelsea's 2016-17 vintage under Conte), but they are a team that at least uses their defensive play as an attacking weapon. At their best over the last 12 months they have proven themselves to be masters of soaking up pressure before unleashing their front line with direct, precise interplay. Against Spurs you can dominate the game and lose it in those moments. But those moments have to appear.
They tend not to if you have to wait 52 and a half minutes to have a shot or until the second half to have a shot inside the penalty area. Harry Kane wasn't dropping deeper to draw out the Marseille defense so he could slip through a killer ball. It was just that if he had stayed in the opposition half he might never even have caught a glimpse of it.
Spurs had been cowed by a collection of waifs and strays from the other team in north London. You could see the outline of the Matteo Guendouzi who had run the midfield as he had when in Arsenal colors back in in the autumn of 2019 before he slid into pretty wasteful passing in the second half. In flashes Alexis Sanchez looked like the player who had so thrilled the Emirates Stadium in years gone by. Marseille were hardly a formidable opponent, struggling to turn their dominance of possession into a string of chances from open play before Chancel Mbemba's added time opener, but Tottenham seemed to fear this team of wildcards could cut their brakes at any moment and send them hurtling into the Europa League.
Tottenham could have been out of Europe by the interval, any complaints falling on deaf ears. The second half at least brought a reaction, as it so often has of late. It is as if Tottenham need a goal to be scored for them to realise this is a competitive sporting event. Rodrigo Bentancur, one of the few unquestionable shining lights of this baffling season, found space to drive into. Kane pushed higher up field, with Lucas Moura offering at least a semblance of support.
Then their star summer signing came to the fore. It wasn't Yves Bissouma, Ivan Perisic or even Clement Lenglet, whose header drew Spurs back into the top two. Rather, add this goal to the repertoire of set piece coach Gianni Vio. It was not the most intricate of wide free kicks but Eric Dier's blocking run across the defense did enough to give Lenglet a free header.
More chances came but they did for Marseille too. Bentancur and Hojbjerg could have won it earlier but so could Sead Kolasinac, heading wide from four yards out to leave his head coach Igor Tudor befuddled. In that moment a matter of millimetres stood between Tottenham and the humiliation of the Europa League. In the heady days when Spurs were booking their place in this competition, such fine margins would have been unimaginable.