Nobody at Tottenham Hotspur expected anything coming into the new season. They had a new manager with new ideas (or should I say “philosophies”?) on how the team should play. They were set to start a recovery, a plan to repair the broken squad of the 2013/14 season, and, having learnt the price of an itchy trigger-finger, most Spurs fans were prepared to wait patiently during this season of transition.
That was the mood in August, before a ball was kicked or a game was played. It is now January and the Premier League has surpassed the halfway point. Spurs sit in sixth, three points off fourth place, two points off bitter rivals Arsenal, two points above Liverpool. They are still fighting in all cup competitions: fourth round of the FA Cup, last 32 of the Europa League, semi final of the League Cup. Suddenly, the mood at Spurs has shifted to snowballing optimism.
You may be asking many questions. How have Spurs season turned out this way? Can Tottenham seriously get into the top four? Can they even win silverware?
I might as well attempt to tackle a few of these.
Having watched Southampton excel last season, I had some sort of expectation as to what Tottenham under Pochettino would be like: high-pressing, possession-based attacking football. But what precisely is the substance of the team? What lies beyond the tactics?
Man-management. Both the previous two managers, Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood, had been charged with lacking in man-management skills. Whilst perhaps this criticism has been contested here and there, there is no denying that Pochettino has communicated superbly with the Tottenham players, particularly the youth. Names like Bentaleb, Kane and Mason were inherited from the previous management as prospects (credit where it’s due) and Pochettino has turned these squad players into starting players. That’s actually an understatement – they are now pivotal to the team! Bentaleb has conducted our build-up play perfectly in midfield. Mason has injected the energy and commitment long absent in defensive midfield at Spurs. Kane is currently Tottenham’s highest scorer in all competitions this season. A Spurs striker that scores goals?! It defies logic.
The cohesion of the squad is another area that has thoroughly improved as well this season. The absence of high-profile, big-money, big-expectation signings in August has allowed the current squad to attempt to prove themselves. Some of these players have risen to the plate: Chadli, Eriksen, Lamela, Vertonghen and Rose spring to mind. Some have not and question marks remain: Soldado, Adebayor, Kaboul and Capoue have disappointed fans, the saddest one being Kaboul, the supposed skipper. Lloris is… well, Lloris – he was always going to be godlike between the posts.
The success of Tottenham this year has derived from a young, vibrant squad still in status of transition.
At the start of the year, not a single fan would have entertained the idea of a top four challenge, let alone a place. What has emerged this year, most surprisingly, is the failings and disappointments of the other top clubs. Manchester United, despite hammering open the multi-million pound piggy-bank in the summer, have been edgy. Arsenal are imitating the Spurs of 2012/13 and are being carried by their world-class talisman in the form of Alexis Sanchez. Liverpool are imitating the Spurs of 2013/14 and are suffering the loss of their world-class talent in the form of Luis Suarez. Everton are nowhere to be seen. This has paved the way for teams like West Ham and Southampton to cement themselves in the top half, and they don’t look like going away in a hurry.
What this means is that, to use a Sky Sports-style cliché, the race for the top four is completely wide open (*cue dramatic music*). Chelsea and Manchester City have first and second, but third and fourth belongs to whom? There is nothing that suggests to me that Spurs are incapable of challenging, despite whatever challenge surely being based on fragility.
It is annoying and insipid to constantly having to listen to Sky Sports proclaim Champions League football as the be-all and end-all of a season. At Tottenham, silverware is their manifestation of glory in football, and every season, there burns a hope in Spurs fans’ hearts that they can claim this glory again.
As mentioned before, Spurs are still competing in all the cup competitions. Most immediately, Spurs take on Sheffield United in the League Cup Semi Final, and optimism is naturally high that the club will have another Wembley Final. Absolutely anything can happen in a cup final, so it would be foolish of me to make predictions. Needless to say, though, it would be the best opportunity for a trophy this season for Spurs.
The Europa League is a long and arduous journey from now till May if a club wants to reach the final. Previous seasons have despicably proved that it is the Champions League failures that succeed in the Europa League. Given the right sustenance and management, however, it is possible for Tottenham to endure a European challenge. The FA Cup is still a long way off completion, but Spurs face Leicester in the Fourth Round this Saturday, so it will be interesting is our progress furthers.
Tottenham are far from any sense of a finished article. Their defence has often been suspect. There has been a heavy reliance on last-minute victories to sustain periods of form. However, if progress during transition is to be suspected, is it so foolish to dream that Spurs can only get better from here on in?
Probably. Still, at least it’ll be fun to watch.