A new season means a blank slate, and a chance to forget about what happened last time around. For the five wealthiest clubs in the Premier League, there is plenty to forget.
Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool experienced varying degrees of misery in 2015/16. Three of them missed out on Champions League football, and two on European football altogether. Four of the five clubs have changed managers in the past 12 months, while a large section of the fifth’s fan base wishes they had too.
Leicester’s title was so unexpected, and so out of keeping with the status quo in the Premier League since Manchester City struck oil, that it can be shrugged off. The big boys will return to their position at the top of the table, while Leicester will slip back down to their rightful place in the pyramid with a pat on the head. “Doing a Leicester” is something for lesser clubs to dream of, but now dominance will be reasserted.
If last season was “Jamie Vardy: The Movie”, the 2016/17 campaign is shaping up to be “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Inconveniently, however, it wasn’t just Leicester who gatecrashed the party.
Mauricio Pochettino’s vibrant Spurs side defied expectations to emerge as Leicester’s closest challengers, keeping up the pressure until the 36th game of the campaign, long after everyone else had given up and expected Spurs — of “Spursy”, “Lads It’s Tottenham” fame — to give up too.
Judging by the early raft of previews and general tone of the conversation, this awkward turn of events is just another thing to be forgotten. You won’t see Spurs in a “Who Will Qualify for the Champions League” prediction by any self-respecting journalist or pundit. The bookmakers and punters agree, listing Spurs as fifth or sixth favourites. The UK broadcasters have little belief that Spurs will be involved in any early top-of-the-table clashes, having selected just two of Tottenham’s opening six games for live coverage.
The narrative ahead of the 2016/17 Premier League season goes as follows:
- New managers and blank cheques at Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea mean a return to the top.
- Arsenal’s Champions League place is guaranteed as long as Arsene Wenger remains in charge.
- Liverpool, reinvigorated under Jurgen Klopp and not afraid to spend, are the most likely challengers if anyone falters.
As for Spurs, the failure to win in the final four games of last season, plus unconvincing performances by Harry Kane and Dele Alli at the European Championships, are unarguable precursors to a year-long drop in form that will return Spurs to their signature, revenue-linked sixth position. Any success for Spurs in the previous season was in direct correlation to the lack of success by bigger clubs. Leicester winning the league was a fluke and will never happen again, ergo Spurs finishing third. Enjoy the Champions League nights at Wembley, Spurs fans, because it’s back to the Europa League in 2017/18 and beyond.
I mean, why do we even bother?
Here’s the thing though: rival teams never look stronger than they do before you’ve actually seen them play. Pep Guardiola’s tactical wizardry, Jose Mourinho’s psychological magic sponge and Antonio Conte’s manic energy are at their most impressive when they exist solely in your imagination. These dreams fuel football, and justify the billions ploughed into the game, not just by oligarchs but also fans.
The problem, once the season starts, is that reality intrudes on these dreams. Injuries, luck, form, inspired opponents, sulking strikers, fallings out, defensive errors and greedy agents can all conspire to make Pep’s tactics look naive, Conte’s energy wasted or Mourinho’s mind games misdirection rather than magic.
Don’t forget that Spurs are good
As James Yorke, a Spurs fan and therefore not one to succumb to a bout of the 2015/16 forgetsies, wrote in his excellent curtain raiser on Statsbomb, there is a six-into-four dynamic this season that means something has to give. But reading and watching the early previews, a curious logic appears to be emerging: the teams that most “need” to finish in the top four are identified as the teams that are most likely to do so. Klopp and Pochettino are less likely to lose their jobs if they fail to secure a top four finish, therefore Liverpool and Spurs are less likely to secure one.
I can understand how this conclusion is reached. But if we learned one lesson from last season, just one, it’s that you don’t get what you need, want or deserve in the Premier League. You just get what you get.
Watching the Manchester clubs spend hundreds of millions on flashy new players, and Roman Abramovich underwrite yet another mammoth Chelsea rebuilding, is intimidating to other teams and fans. And it is supposed to be that way. We’re still David standing there with our slingshot, but Goliath is back on his feet and he’s even bigger.
However Spurs fans (and Liverpool fans after watching their club repeatedly “do a Spurs”) know better than anyone that spending isn’t anything. While it makes you look strong, normally the need to spend is born out of a weakness. You can look at the history of transfers and see that 50 percent work out, 50 percent don’t. Smarter clubs do slightly better, stupid clubs do slightly worse. Not every weakness that dragged the Premier League elite below expectations last season is going to be fixed, and even fewer are going to be fixed immediately.
No club has needed to spend less than Spurs this summer. Sure, we had to buy a second striker and increase the midfield options, but the same starting XI that finished third last season is in place and ready to go. There is no need to adapt to new tactics, understand a new philosophy, or learn how to play together. Spurs walk out at Goodison Park on August 13th knowing exactly what they are meant to be doing.
Last season, Spurs conceded the joint fewest goals along with Manchester United, and five of those 35 goals came in the shitshow at Newcastle. We had the best goal difference (+34) and second best expected goals difference (+29.3, behind Arsenal’s +34.4, per Michael Caley). A bunch of other metrics looked good, if that is your thing. Mauricio Pochettino’s side equalled the club’s highest Premier League points haul, and in six of the ten prior seasons, 70 points would have secured a top four place. Spurs didn’t ride a hot streak, a single superstar or a freak set of results. Spurs were just plain, old-fashioned good, and had the youngest starting XI in the league to boot.
The “Spurs are good” genie is out of the bottle, and it would take an extreme set of circumstances to blow Spurs off course. Do you think Spurs are going to forget how to press? Are Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen going to forget how to play together? Are Erik Lamela and Mousa Dembele going to wake up one morning as the ineffective players they were two years ago? Is Christian Eriksen going to stop making smart passes, and Harry Kane stop finishing them off? As I have stated repeatedly in the past six months, the success Pochettino has created at Spurs has been built on extremely solid foundations. There is a plan, and it is working.
Instead of taking the dismissal of Spurs’ chances as a slight, or as a precursor to a return to the Europa League, we should embrace it.
Spurs are dipping back below the radar, ready to surprise the league by once again not being the Spurs everyone expects us to be. There is a chance to quietly build momentum while the talking heads fawn over Pep and Conte, and the press covers every waking move by Zlatan and Mourinho, the Premier League’s Kanye and Kim. Less pressure means more space for young players like Dele Alli and Eric Dier to grow, for emerging talents like Josh Onomah to find their feet, for new signings like Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen to bed in.
Fueling the fire
What seemed so egregious last season was the relish that greeted every Spurs mistake in the run-in from fanbases who’ve forgotten what it is like to see local boys wearing the shirt, or whose teams had never seriously challenged Leicester for the title. This was only compounded when the same Spurs players formed the core of the England team that flopped at the Euros.
Because we have to explain everything, and connect everything, these two storylines merged into one. Spurs were mentally and physically exhausted, the subtext of which was weakness.
But Spurs didn’t “lose” the title to Leicester; we were only ahead of Leicester for 13 minutes last season and couldn’t chase them down. England didn’t flop because the Spurs players were shattered; England flopped because Roy Hodgson and Gary Neville, in a gross act of footballing negligence, sent the players into battle devoid of tactics and a game plan.
If others want to interpret this confluence of negativity as a precursor to doom, so be it. But do you think, for one second, that Pochettino will let the players dwell on what happened at the end of last season and over the summer, and indulge a hangover? Do you think, for one second, that the anger at falling short last season and the outbreak of schadenfreude will do anything other than drive this team on?
Make no mistake, Spurs are aiming for the title this season.
“We want to win it, and we will go for it,” Alderweireld said towards the end of last season. “I think we now have a different mindset from the one we had at the beginning of this season. Then we were thinking the top four would be brilliant, now we are thinking more than that, we want to go one better.”
Over the past 12 months, Spurs fans have been slower than the players in believing what can be achieved, a caution born out of bitter experience. We are still looking at possible scenarios and bargaining with ourselves as to what is possible, trying to find the balance between hope and realism, mentally hedging against disappointment by lowering expectations.
A sliding scale of acceptability emerges: If not second, then third; if not third, then fourth; if not fourth, then at least win a cup; if no cup win, at least reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League; if we don’t finish above Arsenal, let’s at least finish above Liverpool or Chelsea or West Ham or someone.
But for Spurs, it is no longer about trying to define success in this way: this is the old way of thinking. For Pochettino, the only target is to win the title, and his whole ethos is about continually improving his team until that happens. Finishing in the top four accelerates the building process because Champions League football helps recruitment, increases the budget, and aids player retention. But it isn’t the goal in itself for Pochettino, no matter what the bean counters say. There’s a world of difference between something that is good enough, and something that you really want.
What does progress look like?
Measuring progress is difficult, because it can be counterintuitive. It is possible to improve as a team but still finish lower down the league. We only have control over our opponents’ results twice a season.
So how will Pochettino measure progress, and how should we?
There will be statistical measures that we may or may not see, assessing the quality of things like the press, attacking build-up, set-pieces and fitness, as well as the increase in mental strength that Pochettino considers so crucial yet is so hard to define.
But more visibly, Pochettino will be looking to fix the areas where Spurs fell short.
That means more single-goal wins, whether they be late winners, rearguard actions to protect an early lead, or simply greater control when we’re not playing well. That means fewer dropped points at White Hart Lane, particular against teams such as West Brom who come and sit deep. That means better performances in Europe, because our Europa League displays have been consistently mediocre and we need to raise our game in the Champions League.
Crucially, that also means better results against the other “big” clubs. Spurs improved results in these matches last season, taking 15 points from 30 compared with just seven from 30 in 2014/15, but there is still room for improvement. We’ve not beaten Liverpool yet under Pochettino, and we still need to overcome our Stamford Bridge hoodoo.
These are all yardsticks to measure Tottenham’s progress against. We may solve all the problems, or we may not. The extent to which Spurs manage to do this will determine the strength of the title challenge. But the problems are clear, and they are fixable, and Pochettino has consistently shown the intelligence and ambition required for the task at hand.
If I have one concern, it is a lack of an alternative or supplementary midfield creator to Christian Eriksen. But there is nearly a month left in the transfer window, and plenty of money in the kitty after the relatively light investment since Pochettino took charge. Every other club has a weakness that is just as glaring — in central defensive for Manchester City and Chelsea, the right flank for Manchester United, in most defensive positions for Liverpool and up front for Arsenal. We’re just as likely to find our missing link, if not more.
We’ll know if Spurs are making progress because suddenly our games will be on TV, the players will be in the papers, Mourinho will start his mind games and Chelsea will begin baiting us. Articles describing Spurs as the “surprise package” will be written, glossing over the fact that Spurs being good again really shouldn’t have been that much of a shock if you’d only paid attention.
I’m not going to predict that Spurs are going to win the league — as anyone who follows me on Twitter or has read this blog for a while will attest, my predictions are beyond hopeless.
But make no mistake, Spurs are aiming for the title. Just a shame you had to read it here first.
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