A question: What would a successful 2015/2016 season look like for Spurs?
Not such an easy one to answer, when you start thinking about it.
Two years ago, I was convinced Spurs had finally made the breakthrough after spending the proceeds of the Gareth Bale money on what looked like a batch of quality players. Perhaps cautious of the huge disappointment that followed, I tempered my “this will be our year” thoughts somewhat last August. Nevertheless the weakness at Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool made me think the Top Four was still on, especially if some of the Bale brigade improved after their tricky starts.
Instead, we saw conclusive proof that tens of millions of pounds had been wasted on the likes of Roberto Soldado, so much so that Mauricio Pochettino was forced to turn to young players like Harry Kane and Ryan Mason. And, perhaps more by accident than design, things turned around and Spurs fans started feeling happy again.
But was last season a success? It could go either way.
More optimistic sorts will say fifth place was good given the circumstances, a trip to Wembley brightened the season despite the result, and we had two outstanding derby performances at the Lane that will live long in the memory. Furthermore, we unearthed a genuine homegrown superstar, with the promise of more to come.
More pessimistic sorts will say we missed out the Top Four AGAIN, were miles behind Arsenal AGAIN, failed in Europe AGAIN, and had to endure horror shows at the Lane against the likes of Newcastle and Villa AGAIN.
There’s no right answer, and I prevaricate between the two positions as most fans do. After all it is an emotional reaction as much as a logical one. Overall, I’d say it was a fairly successful season: given the total failure of most of the experienced players, fifth was good and I’m hugely excited about the future. But, I have to be honest, I thought we could get Top Four and we were nowhere near. Fairly successful, but not an outright success.
How many other clubs would need to go through this sort of equivocation before deciding whether a season went well or not?
So, what would a successful season look like this time?
Before I sketch out the possibilities, I should qualify things by saying this debate feels inherently Spursy.
How many other clubs would need to go through this sort of equivocation before deciding whether a season went well or not? For Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United, it is surely title or failure. For Liverpool, it is Top Four or bust, possibly literally given how much they are spending. For the promoted teams and cellar dwellers like Leicester and Villa, all that matters is survival. For most other clubs, you say Top Half, while bigger (Everton) or better run (Swansea, Southampton, Stoke) may say Europa League is a fair benchmark. But Spurs are in a weird position with revenues miles ahead of the bigger five clubs, but a way ahead of Everton in 7th, and this debate may be an expression of that.
So, some league positions:
Top Four: We can all agree, Top Four would equal success.
Fifth: This is where it gets tricky. By revenues/size of club/however you want to put it, Spurs rank behind Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool. It is just a fact at this stage, and is the reason we’re building a bloody massive new stadium. I’ve argued recently that Spurs shouldn’t consider fifth a failure — the problem is that the Champions League is such a huge financial reward that missing out by just one place feels like failure. Finishing fifth is exceeding were we are “supposed” to be — but it is still somewhat unsatisfying. Can success be unsatisfying?
Sixth: Again, this is where we are “supposed” to be, so it feels harsh to call it a failure. A success though? Probably not. But saying that, does it even matter at all if you finish fifth or sixth? The reward is the same — Europa League rather than Champions League. I’d say, this is where style comes in. If Spurs are right in the chase for the Top Four until the end, and then just miss out and are pipped to fifth by goal difference, surely that is better than doing what we did last year, which was fall out of contention with a long way to go, only to recover slightly and pick up a place as Liverpool crumbled? It would certainly be more exciting — and as a club built on audere est facere and “failing while aiming high”, I’d like to think we could find success in a sixth place finish in the right circumstances. Furthermore, it depends on who we finish above or behind.
Seventh or below: Barring a few outlier scenarios, or an incredibly tight Top Four contest that sees Spurs nudged into seventh by just a point or on goal difference, seventh or lower should mean the season is considered a failure.
What other outcomes could be considered a success?
A trophy: Europa League victory would be a massive success, especially with the Champions League reward. FA Cup would be preferable to League Cup, but at this point, any trophy would be a hugely welcome addition to the trophy cabinet, and I’d happily sacrifice a few league positions. At the very least, we need another cup run.
Finishing above Arsenal: It’s been 20 long years, and it is really hard to envisage how Spurs are going to do this with Arsenal looking so strong in so many positions. But it would be bloody hilarious, especially as it would mean something absolutely bananas has happened over at the Emirates.
Finishing above Liverpool: This isn’t for everyone, but I really loathe Liverpool, and take great pleasure in the fact we’ve more or less had their number in recent years in league position. I just find the club so arrogant and boring, especially with the phalanx of ex Liverpool players on every UK TV channel. Their delusion and desperation is a welcome tonic to any Tottenham toil.
Finishing above Chelsea: If an Arsenal collapse seems unlikely, I’m not quite sure what would have to be going on at Chelsea. But boy would it be sweet.
More superstars: A slightly different vibe, but I just wonder if some Spurs fans would be prepared to swallow a bit more rebuilding if it meant the continuing development of our young stars. I’ve written about how I think Nabil Bentaleb is set to take it to the next level, but in the likes of Dele Alli, Alex Pritchard and Josh Onomah, there is every chance we are going to see some serious talent blossoming this season. It feels like Daniel Levy, after years of being the itchiest trigger in the business, is finally settling down to some long-term thinking in terms of building up a team for the new stadium in a couple of years. So perhaps fans will buy into that too. All I would say is, that perspective will be hard to find after the miserable post-Europa home defeats we all know are coming. And measuring sufficient development is hard, and impossible to call between what is success and what isn’t quite success.
So, what would I consider a successful season?
I just fear that this season, the Top Four are ahead by an absolute chasm. I don’t see how Spurs can possibly catch them unless we pull some rabbits out of the hat in the final weeks of the transfer window. I don’t think this is just my pessimism — the Top Four just look absolutely stacked and there is still time to fill the odd hole in their squads. It also feels like, given the massive new TV deal kicking in and the amount being spent by clubs lower down the league, the gap between Spurs and rest is shrinking.
For the first time in quite a few seasons, I’m genuinely starting the season without thinking: “This will be our year”. Next year? Maybe, but this season could be really tough.
Oddly, I’d take the same this season as we achieved last season: Fifth place, a decent cup run, and a couple more feel-good moments from Harry Kane.
Is that too negative, or should we just be realistic about what constitutes success, meaning we are more likely to actually achieve it?