Ed Sheeran played this stadium a couple of weeks ago, and so at least this was not the first time Deutsche Bank Park had been treated to an insipid mid-tempo performance that some people bafflingly insist is the work of a generational genius.
This was not the best of Tottenham, and frankly nor is it the best of Antonio Conte. The fundamentals were sound, the defence just about held tight and this was at least a major improvement on their derby collapse at the weekend.
But the sense of treading water is unmistakable, the feeling that everyone here, from Conte to Harry Kane to the supporters paying their hard-earned, is just slowly getting older. What’s the point of all this? Where is this team going? Does it all just click at some point? Or does it atrophy and drift, a club whose sole point of existence is to keep the same players together so they can do this all again next year?
Indeed for all Tottenham’s superior quality there was a marked difference in vivacity between them and their opponents: Oliver Glasner’s brittle, brilliant little butterfly, the Europa League champions and still giddily accustoming themselves to nights like these.
Indeed the quiet rise of Eintracht from relegation candidates in 2016 to Champions League material in 2022 is one of the lesser-mentioned stories in European football, perhaps because there has been little linear or logical about it. Every time it felt like they were about to turn a corner, another limp run of form would come along. Every time they developed a star, someone else would pinch them. Maintaining their restless momentum despite losing the calibre of Luka Jovic, Sebastian Haller, Ante Rebic, André Silva and Filip Kostic in the last four summers has been perhaps their most considerable achievement.
But they have speed and style and perhaps the loudest fans in Germany, and here they had the better of the opening exchanges. For a team who essentially retreat into a 5-4-1 without the ball, Tottenham are still too porous, still too easy to manoeuvre out of shape, and Frankfurt began with a clutch of half-chances and promising openings before Tottenham finally began to get a grip on the game.
Much of Tottenham’s play went through Emerson Royal, a man at the centre of a rumbling debate amongst Spurs fans of late. Do his defensive qualities excuse his total absence of attacking threat? Why does Conte love this guy so much when he has Matt Doherty and Djed Spence on the bench? Is everyone missing something here? And here again Emerson was the usual blend of lightning speed, tenacity, shots shanked over the bar and crosses blocked by the first man: a sort of human anxiety dream, and with a roughly similar end product.
But as Tottenham’s press began to click, chances were coming. Kane should have done much better at the back post after a well-worked free-kick from Son Heung-min. Next Kane and Son each had a dip from about 20 yards, both just wide. Ivan Perisic’s effort dribbled past the post after deflecting off Kristijan Jakic.
In a testy press conference ahead of this game, Conte had rounded on critics of his counterattacking system, claiming that he could “teach football to many people”, including Tottenham’s own fans.
Certainly you have to admire the stones of a coach willing to utter the unutterable truth of this profession: that ultimately, most people who watch the sport don’t really know very much about it at all. But the really interesting part of his analysis was where he essentially rejected the binary of attacking/defensive football, arguing that what we so often describe as positivity or negativity is often simply a distinction of execution. Fail to make the most of your chances, make elementary errors in defence, and really doesn’t matter what you scribbled on the whiteboard in advance.
And as Tottenham toiled away in the second half, you kind of saw what he meant. Judged on many of the key metrics, Tottenham played on the front foot: pressing high, moving the ball quickly, creating openings, spending much of the game camped in the Eintracht half. But the final ball and the finish kept letting them down, and so the overall effect was not a feast of attacking football, but of a slightly laboured team beginning to second-guess themselves.
They remain well-placed to qualify from an open group, and the late appearance of the lesser-spotted Bryan Gil was a reminder that there is still untapped potential in this team, different possibilities, different options. For now, though, Conte seems locked in to this team, this style, this vibe. And for better or worse, Tottenham remain locked to him.