We’ve rounded the final corner in this crazy Premier League race, and with just seven games to go, Spurs are handily positioned for the sprint to the line.
Leicester, a 5000-1 shot, are a couple of lengths in front and showing no sign of weakening. But there are still hurdles to be cleared before all but the most publicity-hungry bookmaker starts paying out.
After an impressive 3-0 victory for Spurs against Bournemouth, I have one question in my mind, and one question only: Can we do it?
I’m going to mull over this question in a number of ways — both statistically, but also psychologically. Not there is anything obsessive about this, oh no.
The basic numbers
Here is the top of the table:
There are seven games left, with a total of 21 points on offer for Spurs and Leicester. Arsenal (for it is them) are hanging in there. Spurs (+32) have a far better goal difference than Leicester (+23) and Arsenal (+18), and it would take some bizarre results for that to change in the final seven games.
If we finish level on points, we most likely win.*
The odds are in Leicester’s favour. Sky Bet have them at 8/15, while they have Spurs at 11/4. Arsenal are 6/1, and no-one else is a realistic chance.
It’s not huge money either way — these are odds that say “a two and a half horse race”.
I follow a number of analytics guys on Twitter, because I find it both fascinating and frequently illuminating. Here’s the view of three of them on the title race:
As you can see, the race, from this perspective, would appear Leicester’s to lose. But is it that simple?
The psychology and randomness of the title race
While this sort of statistical analysis is far more accurate at projecting future performance than the Ask Lawro school of “they’ll beat them this weekend, I can feel it”, it doesn’t necessarily quite fit with how I view the run-in.
I don’t know what “Leicester have a 72 percent chance of winning” actually looks like in reality. But if someone tells me, if Leicester win six of their next seven they win, that makes sense.
One of the hoariest old cliches is that “every game is a cup final” at this stage in the season, but there is an element of truth. Every football game, in isolation, turns on a relatively small number of key events — a missed penalty here, a wonder save there.
Leicester have won 11 of their 19 games by a one-goal margin — I’m not saying it’s luck, but I am saying their matches are often close. Spurs have won six out of 17 games by a one-goal margin – more often, when Spurs win, the matches are not all that close.
Over the course of the season, it all stacks up, but in just one game, there is hope. Maybe I’ve just heard the Spurs players say “we’re taking it one game at a time” so often that it has started to seep into my psyche, but I’m genuinely starting to see it like that. Does momentum exist? Are we beyond the point in the season where form means anything? Do players really feel any pressure when they step over that white line, and does it change the way they play? Do Leicester’s results actually have any bearing at all on Tottenham’s performances?
That’s a boat load of variables to chuck into the already seething pot of randomness that every Premier League game presents: the fact that in 2016 we still have linesmen trying to look in two places at once to call offside, the fact that no-one knows what handball is anymore, the fact that underperforming teams like Everton and Chelsea have superstars that can turn a game, the fact that an opposition’s motivation may be affected by upcoming cup competitions, not to mention the fact that, ultimately, football is 22 people running around a pitch for 90 minutes, and really anything can happen.
That’s where the hope lies. And yes, it’s the hope that kills you, but football without hope is Newcastle, or Aston VIlla, and I don’t want to lose it. I believe Spurs can still win: but for that to happen, Leicester are going to have to stop winning.
The path to victory
These are the remaining fixtures.
Leicester were often described as having an easy run-in, after a tough mid-season period, but when I look at these fixtures for both teams, I don’t see much in it, frankly.
Like most fans, I have now stopped expecting the sort of dramatic Leicester implosion I’d long assumed was coming. It turns out they are just a good team. They aren’t going to lose all seven of their remaining games.
Likewise, while Spurs are an excellent team that are very hard to beat, it is unlikely we are going to win all seven of our remaining games. For starters, we’ve drawn 10 out of our 31 games. Only West Ham, with 11, have drawn more, among teams in the top half.
So what, bearing this in mind, would a realistic path to victory look like?
I made a chart with all the possible outcomes, comparing the results Spurs would require to win, depending on what Leicester achieved.
If Leicester win six of their final seven games, or win five and draw two, they have won. At the other end, it is really hard to see Leicester getting anything less than eight points — that would be one heck of an implosion.
But looking at the results, and the fixtures, there is a small “sweet spot” where you could feasibly see Leicester giving up just enough that Spurs could go on and win, with some leeway of their own.
The “sweetest” to me is a scenario where Leicester only manage 10 points. They beat Southampton, Swansea and Sunderland, but drop points, nerves kicking in, on the penultimate match of the season against Everton. West Ham continue their run for the top four with a win at the King Power, while Leicester also lose at Old Trafford and at Stamford Bridge.
Under this scenario, Spurs would “only” need to win four and draw three. So Spurs could draw at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, and play out a mind-numbing 0-0 draw at home against Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United, and still be champions if we won all the other games.
Is this realistic?
Certainly, you feel Spurs need some leeway, not least because of our dreadful records at Anfield and Stamford Bridge. We’ve won just twice in the Premier League era at Anfield, and are yet to score a Premier League win at Chelsea. These places, not the Emirates, the Etihad or Old Trafford, are our bogey grounds. We’ll slay a few ghosts if we manage to win at either, and in any other season, you’d take a point and move on.
But at least that part is in our hands. For the rest, we’ll be relying on the work of others to slow Leicester.
Arsenal and St Totteringham’s Day
Everyone is ruling out Arsenal, and certainly the dip in form for both Leicester and Spurs would have to be considerable for them to sneak the title.
But until it is mathematically impossible, I refuse to rule it out. This isn’t superstition, but rather acknowledgement that Arsenal, in recent seasons, have been phenomenal finishers. After their annual Champions League last 16 exit, they invariably turn on the afterburners in the league.
Last season, they won 10 of their last 14. In 2013/14, they won their last five matches in a row. In 2012/13, they won 10 of their last 12.
Under the scenario I outlined above of Leicester only taking 10 points out of a possible 21, if Spurs failed to get the required 15 points, Arsenal could take the title if they won all their remaining games and improved their goal difference over Leicester. Surely, you would think, they will drop some points at some stage, but their record suggests they come on strong.
On this note, what do Spurs need to do to avoid “St Totteringham’s Day”? To guarantee it, with the GD advantage, we’d need 18 points out of 21. If Arsenal were to slip up just once, it would 14 or 15 points required.**
We should be able to do it, but I want to hear fat ladies warbling before I can celebrate finally finishing above Arsenal for the first time in the Wenger era, and truly enjoy the sight of Arsenal fans in meltdown.
A final note
In his post-match interview, Hugo Lloris provided cause for optimism, but also perspective.
“We understand perfectly the philosophy of our manager,” he purred. “We will be ready (for the run-in), we’ve worked all season to get this possibility.”
It may have been an extension of the “one game at a time” mentality, but his next comments were a reminder of just how far Spurs have travelled.
“The first thing is to get the Champions League,” he said. “This club deserves to make one step forward. And after we never know. We just need to be focused on ourselves, and we know in football anything can happen. We need to be ambitious to the last day.”
I warned recently of the “narratives” surrounding Tottenham’s title bid, particular the ideas that Spurs will never get a better chance, or that if Leicester win, Spurs have somehow failed. I’m continually impressed by just how realistic and calm most Spurs fans are being, even as the tension builds.
Above all, the sense on my timeline is that this has been a remarkable season, and that Spurs have outperformed even the most sunny of pre-season predictions. Impressively, we seem to be enjoying it.
Of course, we are all desperate for Spurs to win. My early football memories coincided with the start of the Premier League era, and we’ve never been in this position in that time. This is new territory for me, as it is most Spurs fans given we’ve not won the league since 1961. I can’t begin to put into words what it would mean to me if we won it.
But I firmly believe we are building something special, and if we don’t win it this season, we’ll challenge for it the next. All the building blocks are there. There’s a difference between being unambitious, and not freaking out when something you never thought would happen doesn’t happen.
I’m with Hugo. Let’s get the Champions League, then let’s finish above Arsenal, and then let’s get Leicester.
So can we win? It’s a possibility, rather than a probability, as it isn’t in our hands. But yes, we can win the league — and that really is quite something.
Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more Spurs chat
*Updated this part to remove the lunatic maths.
**Updated this part at 13.30pm the bump required points up by one across the board. Maths…