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 on Saturday.
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 slowly getting older. What’s the point of all this? Where is this team going? Does it all just click at some stage? Or does it atrophy and drift, a club whose sole aim 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, delights like these.
Indeed the quiet rise of Eintracht from Bundesliga relegation candidates in 2016 to Champions League material in 2022 is one of the lesser-evoked tales 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, Sébastian 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 plenty to be proud of too. Djibril Sow was perhaps the best player on the pitch, the only man in a chaotic midfield who seemed to have a proper grasp of the game. Collectively it was a familiar story: an open game, plenty of chances created and given up, and if there was one weakness it was the absence of a player who can create something from nothing against high-class defences. Randal Kolo Muani, the young French striker signed in the summer, has plenty of promise. But for now, a killer he is not.
Of course Tottenham have Kane, for all the good it did them here, as at least four or five good chances went begging from his boot and those of Son Heung-min. “Football is simple, to win you have to score,” Conte explained afterwards. And it was a more conciliatory Conte than the testy character who had appeared before the game, rounding on critics of his 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 finish your chances, make elementary errors, and it really doesn’t matter what you scribbled on the whiteboard in advance.
As Tottenham toiled away in the second half, you kind of saw what he meant. They pressed high, moved the ball quickly, dominated possession: all the usual hallmarks of a team playing on the front foot. 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.
At the back they were occasionally porous, occasionally a little flat-footed, but mostly secure. Clément Lenglet and Rodrigo Bentancur both had good games. Meanwhile the jury remains resolutely out on Emerson Royal, a man at the centre of a rumbling debate among Spurs fans, who wonder aloud whether his defensive qualities excuse his total absence of attacking threat. And here again Emerson was the usual blend of lightning speed, tenacity, shanked shots and blocked crosses: a sort of human anxiety dream, and with a roughly similar end product.
They remain well-placed to qualify from an open group, and for all their foibles Conte has made them extremely hard to beat. But there is something missing here too: inspiration, ingenuity, extra gears, different options. For now Conte seems locked into this team and this style. And for better or worse, Tottenham fans are locked to him.