Before this last-16 second leg, Son Heung-min had announced that Tottenham Hotspur intended to “make a statement” And so they did. That statement was: this is not a very good Tottenham Hotspur team. Rather this felt like a Spurs team reaching the end of something, without clarity or craft or any real sense of life; a team that is facing up now to another season of chasing another season of chasing another season of … well, what exactly?

There are good 0-0 draws. There are heroic exits, games where you chase the sun and come up short. This wasn’t any of those things. Instead, this was a night that seemed to raise some very basic questions about what Spurs are for, what this entity is intended to express.

A team that is just good enough has been built to play football that is just good enough, cashing in on the happy accident of a single home-grown world-class player, teasing its fans with the sense of standing quite near to other people’s success. And not just once, but year after year, following the same patterns.

What is the point of the rest of Spurs’ league season from here? A desperate push to finish fourth in order to do all this over again? What is the point of erecting this mimesis of an ambitious team? Who, exactly, is enjoying this, destined to look back on it all as the days of their lives? This is product. Stuff on a stage. They have a go-kart show here too apparently.

Needing to score to progress in this tie Spurs were terrible in the first half, a team playing through a muddle of sleepiness and heavy touches. They didn’t have a shot on target. They didn’t look like they actually wanted a shot on target.

With 37 minutes gone there was a 20-second game of seven-a-side head tennis across the halfway line, settled by Olivier Giroud barging through the bodies and passing back to his goalkeeper. It almost came as a relief when Cristian Romero was booked for an absurd full-body lunge at the excellent Rafael Leão, launching himself full length like a paratrooper leaping out of a burning aeroplane and taking his man at hip height.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was a magnificent, chill, drizzle-washed spectacle at kick-off, albeit the tone on nights like these always seems a little mismatched with a three-minute blast of Chas and Dave tinkly-tonkly pub rock before kick-off, but, hey, you can’t kill the spirit.

Rafael Leão on the ball against Spurs.
‘A player of elastic brilliance’: Rafael Leão on the ball against Spurs. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Antonio Conte was back on the touchline again, recovered just enough now from what is a horrendous piece of surgery. He looked a little tender and gaunt, but still out there, touchingly upright in his baggy quilted coat. And from the start Spurs were simply half-there.

Early on Son sprinted 60 yards to press the Milan back line after a corner, looked back and saw only space behind him, Ivan Perisic gesturing furiously at three Milan players in his space, and beyond him the deep flat back five. Spurs just can’t press high in this shape. There aren’t enough bodies. This is surely part of Son’s reduced efficiency. He wants turnovers, wants to be ravenous in the final third, to run at a disordered defence.

And Milan just looked more settled, looked to have more cutting edge on the flanks, and in Leão a player of genuine elastic brilliance on the ball. Brahim Díaz was a scurrying menace, so easy on the ball, making the game up in front of him.

Spurs have nobody like this in their team, no player whose first love is simply the ball. Here the Spurs midfield sprinted back and forth in straight lines and right angles while Díaz flitted about between them, like Pac-Man fleeing a troupe of white-shirted robo-ghosts.

And at times watching Spurs try to attack is like playing a very basic video game: the same patterns, the same angles and lines and pre-set rhythms. Kane spins deep. Kane turns and hits left on the joystick, long pass inside out. A basic computer could “learn” Conte’s Spurs in four-sevenths of a second, spooling out a predictive printout of their expected attacking moves for the next 400 years.

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Things changed a little in the second half. Spurs were still terrible. But they were terrible slightly quicker. The midfield ran its dead ends more energetically, padded sideways with a greater sense of urgency. Pedro Porro came on and added some direct running down the right.

But still, nothing really happened, nothing with any shape or structure. With 21 minutes to go before the exit door Spurs made, of all things, an attacking change, Richarlison replacing Emerson. And this was it, the cavalry charge, the pedal floored, Conte’s Spurs in full fight mode. In practice this added up to a frantic 4-2-4, and endless high diagonal passes towards something undefined, a better future, an end to this thing.

There was a last note of gallows humour: with eight minutes to go and Spurs in need of craft, patience, incision, Conte took off Dejan Kulusevski and sent on Davinson Sánchez. Is this, like irony?

And those final minutes were painful. Here is Sánchez playing, somehow in the midfield general’s role, spraying punt-passes out to the wings. Here is Leão holding the ball with devastating ease. This is not a starry Milan team, it’s a product of three years spent reining in the club’s debt. But they had a clarity Spurs lacked, the sense of at least resembling a modern, fluid, elite football team.

For Spurs this thing is surely reaching a tipping point. Conte does look a little out of time. Here is a coach unflinchingly wedded to the tactical hairstyle of his youth, still rolling out the same shape, the same deep block; and still, as all Spurs managers must, hoping Harry and Sonny will solve the rest of it. It never really looked like happening here. An event was staged. Revenues were generated. The white shirts ran their patterns.

And naturally before the end Romero was sent off for a second yellow card, this time for a running ankle-chop lunge on Théo Hernandez. It was a deeply stupid act. But also, perhaps, a cry in the dark. All Spurs had to offer here was trapped rage and football-style patterns. Romero unloading on Hernandez was at least some kind of clarity. Sometimes you just need to feel something.

This article was amended on 9 March 2023. An earlier version misnamed Cristian Romero as “Sergio” Romero.