After a brief Indian Summer, it has turned autumnal in England this week. Wind and rain, temperatures dropping, leaves starting to fall from the trees. It feels like football weather, finally.
Of course, we are eight matches in — almost a quarter of the 2015/2016 season is already gone. For Messrs Rodgers and Advocaat, the game is already up, while the seats are warming under a few other managers, “Tactics” Tim Sherwood included. Eight matches may or may not be sufficient sample size from a statistical point of view, but it feels we’ve seen enough of the latest edition of Spurs to draw some conclusions about where we stand.
In no particular order:
POCHETTINO SETTLES IN
I wrote last week about Mauricio Pochettino and how his philosophy finally appeared to be taking root at Spurs. I saw more evidence of this against Monaco. I wasn’t able to watch the Swansea game due to the ridiculous restrictions on broadcasting Spurs matches in the UK, but from what I read it sounded like Spurs played well and could have won. It felt a respectable point. Crucially, it appears that Poch may have found his solution to managing his squad through the Europa League. It always felt like a double-edge sword — play a weakened team in the Europa League and risk loss of momentum, or play a strong team and risk tiredness on Sundays. But, perhaps smartly, it appears Poch has focused on finding players he thinks are capable of playing back-to-back — the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier. If you look at top teams, star players generally play almost every match — to be rested is a rare treat, and to be savoured all the more for it. It has taken a while, but Poch is finding players he thinks can survive the rigours of Spurs’ schedule.
Jamie Carragher’s comments about Liverpool “becoming like Tottenham or Newcastle” riled a few Spurs fans, but not me. It just showed the Liverpool delusion at its worst, and how supposedly insightful pundits like Carragher have missed the fact that Spurs are a rather different proposition nowadays. As one wag put it on Twitter (I’d link by can’t remember who it was unfortunately), Liverpool “saying they won’t do a Spurs then doing a Spurs is more Spursy than anything Spurs have ever done.” Gary Neville, on the other hand, has noticed, and was impressed by the foundations being built by White Hart Lane. We saw it in patches last season — all those late goals showed a toughness that Spurs fans aren’t accustomed to. It has stepped up this season. Aside from a narrow defeat against Manchester United, Spurs are unbeaten in the past seven (our longest unbeaten runs in the previous two seasons were six games. We managed a 12-game run in 2012/2013). We’ve come from behind to trounce Man City, when previously we have rolled over against them, while we also scored a late winner against Sunderland and ground out a win against a tough Crystal Palace side. On Sunday, Spurs came back twice against Swansea in a post-Europa Sunday outing. Spurs are among the group with the best defensive records in the league, and the advanced stats look pretty good in terms of underlying numbers. The squad is the youngest in the league, the camp seems united, and the exit of the Sporting Director, Franco Baldini, was handled smoothly with none of the public bloodletting that often occurs as reputations are fought for.
The transfer market has been a bit of an ordeal in recent seasons — Christian Eriksen is the last screaming success. But, for the first time in a couple of seasons, there is real excitement about a couple of the new boys: Son Heung-min and Dele Alli (bought in January but only arrived at the club this summer). Son has taken to the Premier League like a duck to water. His constant motion, excellent technique and ability to involve himself in the game have clearly lifted the team. Hopefully his foot injury isn’t chronic, because he could be a key player at Spurs for years to come and is a massive upgrade to our attacking midfield options. Meanwhile, Spurs may have struck gold with Alli. When I see him, I can’t help but think of Steven Gerrard — there is something about the rangy athleticism, deceptively good technique and the positive intent of his attacking play that reminds me of the former Liverpool captain. I know that is setting the bar impossibly high, but even if he never quite hits the heights of Gerrard, he looks like quite the player.
JURY STILL OUT
We’ve barely seen anything of Kevin Wimmer, so it is impossible to draw any conclusions — other than he may struggle to see serious playing time with the partnership of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen looking stable. But, while Fede Fazio looked like he was playing in floppy clown shoes against Arsenal, I liked what I saw from Wimmer in that game. He looked quick, strong and composed, and I hope he is first choice once injuries and suspensions strike our Belgian duo. As for Clinton N’Jie, gosh he looks raw. There may well be talent there — he did a great job exploiting a tiring Man City defence to set up Erik Lamela. Also, he obviously has pace to burn. But, if Kane got injured and Son isn’t recovered, could he play up top in the Premier League? It feels like a big ask. He reminds me of rookies who get drafted in NBA because of their size or athleticism, but haven’t yet shown they know how to actually play the game. Some learn and become stars, but many just never make that leap from athlete to sportsman. We’ll see with N’Jie.
On this subject, it feels like we are a striker light in the squad. On Sunday, with Son injured and Kane tiring, from the sounds of it Poch lacked a good option to send on and possibly win the game. I watched the Everton game, and thought the lack of a striker on the bench was glaring. I like Son as a replacement for Kane as they feel very similar players in terms of work rate and ability to play across the line. But it feels samey — I fear that Spurs are a touch predictable, and are reliant on superior fitness to grind down opposition, rather than having players in the match-day squad capable of causing opposition defences different types of problems. I think Saido Berahino would have been a huge addition to this squad — his all round play is good, but also he has that touch of the Jermain Defoe about him, sniffing out goals. It is hard to impress in the dreadful West Brom team Tony Pulis has assembled, but Berahino is still finding ways to score. I’m sure our chances of winning against Swansea and Everton would have improved with Berahino in the squad.
DIER WOLF AND OTHER SUCCESS STORIES
While Dele Alli has attracted the attention of Roy Hodgson, many of us Spurs fans would say that our player of the season so far has been Eric Dier. His superb midfield play has given the team the platform it needs, both defensively and in attack. He also seems an increasingly vocal part of the team — I loved his interview with Spurs TV after the Man City match, and his anger at the lack of respect he felt that Spurs receive. Watching the footage between final whistle and advert break, as “Glory Glory Tottenham Hotspur” reverberated around White Hart Lane, I noticed Hugo Lloris make a beeline for Dier and give him an extra long hug. Hugo is as smart as they come, and knows Dier, as much as Toby and Jan, are the reason he is picking the ball out the back of the net a whole lot less this season. There have been other successes too. Erik Lamela has rightly received praise for his good form. In a team that risks becoming predictable, having someone like Lamela on song feels even more important. He may drive us mad with his inability to retain possession and with too many silly fouls, but he makes stuff happen. Also, I’d like to say a word about Ben Davies. Instead of being dispirited by falling behind Danny Rose in the pecking order, he has worked hard and made the most of Rose’s early season injury to establish himself as first-choice. He may not offer the attacking dynamism of Rose, but he is much better defensively and has been an important factor in Spurs’ tight play this season.
PLAYERS WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE
There have been a few disappointments among a generally very positive set of performances. I’ve not been pleased with what I have seen from Nacer Chadli. He appears to have drifted back to his form in his first season. Yes, he remains an occasional goal threat, but he isn’t involving himself enough in the attacking play. There is a lack of ambition in his play. I hope he rediscovers his fire, as he is a useful player. Andros Townsend, meanwhile, has done virtually nothing in his limited opportunities. I didn’t see him against Swansea, but from what I heard he was hopeless. I was very disappointed with his performance against Arsenal. He just doesn’t create enough. He was already running out of chances last season, but it can surely only be a matter of time before he is moved on. I’d also say that Nabil Bentaleb has something to prove. He started the season poorly and then got hurt on international duty. It could be a costly injury, as he has lost his place in midfield. With Dier suspended, Bentaleb may get a chance against Liverpool to restake his claim. I hope he takes it — he is a very good young player and can grow from adversity, even if he has been the subject of some overexcited buffoonery from certain Spurs bloggers in recent months.
RIGHT BACK CONUNDRUM
If there is one position where Spurs may be struggling, it is at right back. For the first time in what feels a long time, Kyle Walker is fully fit and has established himself as first choice ahead of Kieran Trippier. But I’ve never been convinced by Walker. While he has incredible athleticism, work rate and good crossing technique, he lacks game intelligence. Jefferson Montero is a tough opponent, and by all accounts Walker improved through the game, but for the first Swansea goal it was far too easy for the Swansea winger to get his cross in. Time and time again, Walker lets crosses into the box. Danny Rose is similar, which is one big reason why I prefer Ben Davies. He also continues to make dumb errors — he gave the ball away for the Man City goal, and nearly gave Crystal Palace a big opportunity. Now he is fit, he may benefit from an extended run and whatever magic touch Pochettino has for fullbacks. But I’m not quite sure he has the footballing IQ to cut out the errors. He reminds me a little of Younes Kaboul — when you spend so much of your early career being able to rely on your speed to bail yourself out of mistakes, you run a risk of not learning from the mistakes. As for Trippier, while he has looked generally quite good in his Europa outings, in both matches he has made big errors — he gave away a sloppy penalty, and allowed his man to score a header against Monaco. Let’s give him more time to settle down, but the jury is out. I wonder if, in his black box, Paul Mitchell isn’t looking around Europe for possible long-term upgrades at right back. Of course, there is a promising prospect at the club in Kyle Walker-Peters.
IS THE TOP FOUR ON?
Chelsea look terrible, and they must be at serious risk of missing out on the Top Four this season. I’ve actually thought Liverpool have looked OK in spells, but clearly the Brendan Rodgers “thing” had started to run its course. Jurgen Klopp seems an incredibly fit for that squad and city, so I’d certainly expect them to pick up. While the likes of Palace and Leicester look strong, I’d imagine they will fall away a little. Among the chasing pack, Spurs seem well positioned. We are two points off the Top Four, have the joint best defensive record and are unbeaten in the last seven games. This has been achieved with only one Harry Kane goal (OK, so maybe two if you count the Swansea howler), with first-choice midfielders Christian Eriksen, Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb missing games through injury, and Son Heung-min arriving late in the transfer window. The trouncing of Man City will have been noticed: Spurs may not be seen as the pushover we once were among the Premier League big boys. I’d still back Liverpool to finish above Spurs, and suspect Palace, Everton, Swansea and Southampton will run us close, but I’m feeling more optimistic now than I was at the start of the season. I suspect that feeling is shared by many Spurs fans.
THE MONTH AHEAD
The next block of matches are rather interesting. We open at White Hart Lane against Liverpool, who will likely be under new management. It is a tad unlucky to face Liverpool in the first match under Klopp as you imagine they will be motivated. But Brendan Rodgers always managed to get Liverpool going against us, so it can’t really be worse. Then, we have two very winnable games — Bournemouth away and Villa at home. I suppose, though, there is a risk Villa are under new management by then as well. This is followed by the North London derby. Who knows which Arsenal will turn up? They won what was a battle of squads in the Capital One Cup. And it looks like Alexis Sanchez is back in business. But if Spurs can hang tough and avoid going behind early, spaces tend to emerge in the Arsenal midfield. Looking at the run, two draws and two wins would be a good return. That would take us on to 21 points going into the final international break, enough, I’d imagine, to see Spurs sitting within the Top Four. A good month, and things might start getting interesting. Is that excitement in the air, or is just the autumn?
Please do follow me on Twitter for more random musings, generally on Spurs. I’m @crg_yeah