Debunking the myths about Tottenham and the title race

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Like many fans, I read far more articles about Spurs than is healthy. Hours of my life are wasted each week. It must classify as compulsive behaviour — if there is something that is written about Spurs, I just can’t say no.

What makes it extra silly is that, bar some honourable exceptions, the articles on mainstream sites are often essentially the same. Not exactly the same of course, but with the same underlying assumptions, preconceptions, or logical framework.

This is fine when the premise of the article is accurate — “Spurs work hard”, “Pochettino is a good coach”, “Spurs are an exciting young team”. But time and time again, I get frustrated when I read articles about Spurs built upon strawman arguments, cliche or presumption.

As we enter the final quarter of the season, and with Spurs so tantalisingly placed, the deluge of reading material will only intensify. So here are seven narratives about Spurs and the title race to look out for and avoid, to help you fully enjoy the ride this joyous Spurs team are taking us on:

 

Myth 1: “Nobody wants to win the title”

The most common narrative of them all: Teams such as Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester City are failing to overhaul Leicester at the top because we don’t “want” it enough.

Sarah Winterburn of Football 365, normally one of my favourite writers due to her ability to rise above the narrative, summed up this argument in her North London derby conclusions.

We will ask again: Has somebody p***ed in the Premier League trophy? Nobody wanted it enough in January to spend money on the players that might have made a difference and nobody wanted it on Wednesday when Leicester left the door ajar only to see it kicked shut in cack-footed fashion by Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City.

For even one second, does anyone think this is true? Do Spurs, Arsenal or Man City really not WANT the title? It is preposterously inaccurate. Of course they want the title: the problem is that they aren’t good enough to win it.

Man City aren’t good enough tactically in big matches. Arsenal are too inconsistent and weak in central midfield. Spurs lack options up front and draw too many matches. Leicester aren’t winning because they want it more. They are winning it because, implausible as it sounds, they are just better than everyone else.

 

Myth 2: “Every defeat means something”

When Spurs were beaten by West Ham, various diagnoses were made: Spurs were feeling the pressure, Spurs were tiring due to Pochettino’s intense style, and so forth.

In the Guardian, both columnist Barney Ronay, and correspondent Dominic Fifield, diagnosed a clear case of title anxiety:

The pangs of anxiety had gripped through a one-sided first half, rendering their approach tentative and ineffective. Mauricio Pochettino denied it but the suspicion was that this was the first evidence of nerves undermining the club’s pursuit of a first league championship in 55 years.

I noted in a previous piece the disparity between the reactions of Spurs fans and the media to this result. While journalists felt the result required a particular psychological explanation, most fans just shrugged.

West Ham are a good team, they played well, and Spurs appeared slightly off the pace ahead of Saturday’s big derby. We were also missing two of our three central midfield amigos. Spurs didn’t throw away a three-goal lead, Pochettino didn’t start screaming “I’d love it if we beat them on Saturday” to the TV cameras, and Toby Alderweireld didn’t slip over and concede a goal a week after telling his team “let’s not slip”.

Sometimes, in football, you just lose. Spurs have only lost four times all season — this is surely a far greater statement of the team’s psychological strength than one narrow defeat at Upton Park.

 

Myth 3: “Spurs will never have a better chance of winning”

Spurs led the league for 13 minutes on Saturday, creating plenty of jokes on social media that this might be it for another decade or so. Indeed, a common narrative is that Spurs need to overhaul Leicester this season, as if we don’t, another chance might not come along for a very long time.

This was how Tony Evans ended his report on the North London derby:

[Harry Kane] was right. Tottenham had the chance to go top and let it slip. Opportunities like that may not come along so often.

I understand the logic: this season has been something of a perfect storm of underperformance by the moneybags elite. Next season, with Pep Guardiola at Man City, Jurgen Klopp rebuilding Liverpool, Chelsea under new management and Man Utd with either Jose Mourinho or, erm, Ryan Giggs in charge, even getting a top four place could be beyond the reach of Spurs.

But this misses a couple of crucial points.

First, there is no guarantee that all the new managers will hit the ground running, or ever be a success. The rebuilds at Manchester United and Liverpool in particular look precarious.

And second, does anyone seriously think Spurs aren’t going to be even better next season? When you have the youngest squad in the league, it means you have a ton of room for natural progression. The likes of Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Eric Dier are just scratching the surface of what they are as players, and Pochettino still has plenty of scope in terms of improving the team as an incisive attacking unit (in my view). We may not win this year, but we’re going to be just as competitive next time.

 

Myth 4: “Leicester’s success means everyone else is failing”

I raised this point in my piece before the North London derby. It is a particularly negative argument: Leicester’s success makes everyone else look bad.

The argument was encapsulated in this piece from Richard Jolly:

There is one influential faction who should hope Claudio Ranieri’s energetic overachievers fade away: the other 19 Premier League clubs. It would be an indictment of them all if Leicester become the most unexpected champions since Ipswich in 1962.

I asked on Twitter and Reddit if anyone at the start of the season honestly thought that we’d be where we are now. Overwhelming, the reaction was that we had expected Spurs to finish outside the top four, and comfortably so.

You can’t judge your season solely through the prism of another club’s performance. Leicester’s success is a wonderful story, but takes nothing away from what has been a stonkingly good campaign for Spurs.

Man Utd should be disappointed, not because Leicester are top, but because they are sixth. Arsenal fans are disappointed, because once again their title challenge is in danger of fading. But it doesn’t really matter that it is Leicester edging clear at the top, rather than Man City — it’s about them.

 

Myth 5: “A tight race means a bad race”

There is an extension to the “If Leicester are winning it means everyone else is failing” narrative. Namely, if a team that a year ago was bottom of the league is now leading, then the league must have gotten worse.

Winterburn (again, normally one of my favourite football writers, but her conclusions on Saturday were very negative), sums this up:

As ridiculous as it may sound, as a Premier League neutral I want to see a team – any team – grab this title and make it unquestionably theirs. We see scruffy, anybody-can-beat-anybody, error-strewn football in the Championship and I expect and want better from the top flight. So while this 2-2 draw was enthralling – and indeed perfect for 16 Conclusions – it was also deeply disappointing. Does nobody want this enough to produce the kind of performances worthy of champions? Over to you, Leicester.

Last season, Chelsea cruised to the title, while the established big four all slotted nicely into their expected Champions League slots without any serious challenge. But does this mean the Premier League was “better”?

Certainly, by the yardstick of European competition, the answer was “no”. No English team made the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and only Everton reached the last 16 of the Europa League. This season, Man City are almost certain to progress, Chelsea have a strong chance against PSG, and one of Liverpool or United (who admittedly stunk up the Champions League) will reach the Europa League quarter-finals.

Sure, Chelsea and both Manchester clubs have underachieved, but this doesn’t mean that Leicester are bad. Just because we are struggling to explain why Leicester are good, doesn’t mean they aren’t good. This compulsion to explain everything, even when we don’t have all the facts, is age old — when the Vikings saw lightning, they assumed it was Thor getting mad.

And the same with Spurs — us finishing second behind Leicester wouldn’t mean that the 2015/16 season deserves some sort of asterix in the record books. It is to our credit if we finish above richer clubs such as Man City or Chelsea, and not just to their detriment. You are going to read some stuff in weeks to come about how this season was a fluke, about how lucky Spurs and Leicester were — don’t buy it. In a 38-game season, you get what you deserve.

And this is all before the miserablist assertion that this race is somehow less worthy because it is close. Surely a tight, unpredictable race is much more enjoyable, and in fact a truer test of a team’s nerve and competitive spirit, than the standard procession of clubs by order of revenue? Charlie Stillitano may disagree, but everyone else wants a contest.

 

Myth 6: “The balance of power is shifting in North London”

This is one of the oldest narrative chestnuts, wheeled out every time Spurs make a splashy signing, beat Arsenal or threaten to finish above them.

It reached a peak before Saturday’s match-up: a Spurs win would knock Arsenal out of the title race, and end Arsene Wenger’s era of domination to boot.

From Jason Burt’s (excellent) preview in the Telegraph:

Spurs are most definitely catching up on the pitch and in the dug-out. The fact is they go into Saturday’s north London derby at White Hart Lane three points ahead of their bitterest rivals and mounting their first league title challenge for decades.

But there is also a sense that something more significant is unfolding given the cohesion, the freshness and hunger of Spurs’ approach as opposed to the mood of complacency, conservatism and – most worrying of all – toxicity (from the fans) that has begun to envelope Arsenal from the ownership down.

Sure, a win on Saturday would have been huge in this race. But does anyone think Arsenal won’t be just as strong, if not stronger next season?

While they may have atrophied a bit, Arsenal have world-class attacking talent in Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. They also have a ton of money in the bank. If Spurs do finish above Arsenal this season, this is surely a catalyst for them to actually start spending it. After 20 years of St Totteringham’s Days, we are overdue a year above the other lot, but that doesn’t mean the balance of power has shifted in the other direction. At most, it means that there may finally be some balance in what has become a depressingly one-sided rivalry.

Again, before the start of this season, I’d have taken parity with Arsenal — let’s not get overexcited.

 

Myth 7: “Spurs can’t win because they are Spurs”

Read anything about the title chances of Spurs, and there’ll be an underlying rider that this team is ultimately too inexperienced, or lacks the track record, to win. Failing that, the mere existence of the word “Spursy” is enough evidence to many to suggest Spurs don’t have the bottle.

Garth Crooks, a former Spurs player although by journalistic standards hardly the next Hugh McIllvaney, summed it up in his Team of the Week:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Spurs cannot win the Premier League title. What they can do is produce moments of magic like the goal scored by Harry Kane that should have won the game and proved that they are capable of winning the matches that matter.

With Leicester (at least up until a couple of weeks ago) the argument was that because no rank outsider has ever won the Premier League, it means it is impossible and they are bound to fall away.

This is nonsense of the highest order.

For Spurs, the whole reason Alan Hansen’s “you’ll never win anything with kids” line became one of the ultimate footballing cliches was because it was proved so utterly wrong that very season.

As for the whole “Spursy” thing — this is the team with the best goal difference, tightest defense and best record of gaining points from losing positions. “Spursy” belongs to a different era — just as you can’t apply the tag “Invincibles” to the current Arsenal squad, or describe Liverpool as the best club in the world.

For Leicester, the logical failure is even more extreme. No 5,000-1 shot has ever been in the running nine games out — this is new territory in the Premier League era, so nobody can apply past evidence to judge how it will end, as there isn’t any.

I suspect we are all guilty of this to a degree. For me, my voyage of belief in Leicester winning the league has been slow — it was really only this weekend that it dawned on me that it was now a likelihood.

I understand that with Spurs having led for a whopping 13 minutes this season, the idea that we may go on and win it seems fanciful. But if we don’t, it won’t be because we are too young, too Spursy, or because we’ve not won it before. It’ll be because there was someone better than us.

 

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more articles and general Spurs chat.

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One thought on “Debunking the myths about Tottenham and the title race

  1. Pingback: Can Spurs win the league? An analysis | The Spurs Report

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