Kieran Trippier celebrates his winner against Watford this weekend.
The 2015/16 Premier League, could the unthinkable be about to happen, the most surprising winners since the introduction of the Premier League as a competition. I refer not to the current league leaders Leicester City who just won away at the Etihad, instead I am talking about the side that have crept into 2nd place as of writing, Tottenham Hotspur.
Now I am not writing off Leicester City here, or underplaying their huge achievement thus far. They are a team I believed would fall away many months ago and continue to surprise everybody, who would predict a 3-1 victory away at league favourites Manchester City. Quite rightly Leicester are now the bookies favourites to lift the title in May, not odds on, but favourites nonetheless. They sit 5 points clear at the top of the table and with games running out will be confident of holding onto their position. However, they are reliant on Vardy and Mahrez, there are a number of difficult fixtures ahead and the pressure is really going to start heating up on a squad not used to it.
Behind them sit Tottenham, serial failures, a team that has introduced the term ‘Spurs it up’ when opportunities are missed. A side that has largely been considered the other team in the title race as Arsenal and Manchester City try to keep up with the flying foxes of Leicester. But as Leicester still celebrate in Manchester, and Arsenal are concentrating on finding their goal scoring form in time for tomorrows trip to Bournemouth, Tottenham quietly dispatched a plucky Watford team 1-0. This was a fixture that would usually see Tottenham ‘Spurs it up’, a game they are expected to win but fail to when the moment comes. However, under Pochettino, a brilliant young coach with a massive future ahead of him, Tottenham have become a completely different outfit. Fitter, younger, harder working, with flair, pace, determination and passion, this isn’t the usual Tottenham side that would crumble and wilt. This is a team that fears nobody, a team that continues to win, and win under the radar of others more high profile achievements. This is the perfect opportunity for Spurs to produce the unthinkable, and this could be the only opportunity they will have for many years.
We are in a bizarre season where the big teams have folded, Chelsea have crumbled from Champions to a side that will be hoping for a Europa League place at best. Liverpool are terribly inconsistent and seem destined to spend the season in mid table, Manchester United have bored teams and supporters to death and although coach Louis van Gaal has been talking up their title hopes, they are a long way adrift and the top four has to be the main ambition. Which leaves Manchester City and Arsenal, two teams who should have run away with the league but keep dropping silly points at the worst possible time. They remain many people’s favourites to keep Leicester from a title win, but with every passing week they convince less and less. All this will change next season, Chelsea and Manchester United will have new management and big expenditure, Liverpool under Klopp will be a completely different animal and then there is Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. So for both Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, it is now or perhaps never.
Tottenham should be a team in transition, purse strings slightly closed with a new stadium on the horizon, a young team learning under a new coach, they shouldn’t be performing as they are. They don’t have superstar names, there isn’t a vast pool of money to tap into or a large squad on which to rely. It is a young group of players all working hard for each other in the hopes of improving, and it is working like a dream. The results keep coming, players are playing beyond themselves, stars are being created rather than acquired and rather tellingly, there are no longer the signs of a team about to ‘Spurs it all up’.
Now let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here and claim Spurs are the team to beat for the title, there is a long long way to go and many opportunities to drop points, but let’s look at their remaining games. There are tough away fixtures at Manchester City and Liverpool, but if today has shown anything it’s that neither venue is as tough a visit as it once was. Aston Villa, Stoke and Newcastle will all be away games that Spurs will hope to have the measure of, which then just leaves two tricky ties away at Chelsea and West Ham. At White Hart Lane they will welcome Swansea, West Brom, Bournemouth, Southampton, Manchester United and Arsenal. Tough games but at home you’d have to fancy Spurs to pick up some decent results. Arsenal, City and Leicester all have tough fixtures of their own coming up and the title may well be decided by which team drops the least silly points, for this reason Tottenham have to be considered major title contenders.
So let’s turn this on its head, what are the reasons for Tottenham not to end the season as Champions. The fixtures for all clubs are difficult and the season is a tough one to predict, so what is potentially keeping Spurs from flying the Champions flag over White Hart Lane. Well first of all is Leicester City, they are five points clear and have it all in their favour. But the question remains, how long can they really keep going with such a small selection of players and no real experience. The second issue is the pressure of the chasing pack, or to put it another way, can Tottenham keep Arsenal and Manchester City behind them. The battle to finish above their North London rivals is one that Spurs take on annually, and always fail to succeed. Throw in a Manchester City team alongside them, with the added pressure of a title on the line, it’s a big ask for a young Tottenham side. Which bring us to issue number three, it’s a young team, there is a lack of experience in grinding out results and although Pochettino is a brilliant young coach, he has never been in this position in his previous roles. But maybe that naivety of youth, the lack of fear is just what is needed to produce the unexpected. The major point could well be the fourth one, the build-up of fixtures. Tottenham are currently competing on three different fronts and we’re approaching the high pressure stages in all those competitions. The FA Cup sees them take on Crystal Palace in the last sixteen, whereas in the Europa League there is a tough double header against Italian side Fiorentina on the horizon. These three cup fixtures come directly after the away match against Manchester City, and any progression in these competitions will pile up fixtures at the business end of the season.
So the four issues, can they catch Leicester, can they handle the pressure of those below them, is the side too young and inexperienced and will a fixture pile-up be too much. Let’s look at the squad who has to meet these issues head on, do they have the strength, do they have the depth? Well as I said earlier there aren’t the big star names in the squad, rather players who have grown into stars under the team ethic. In goal Hugo Lloris can hold himself up to the best in the World, maybe not in the same bracket as Manuel Neuer, but definitely on the next rung of the ladder. As a backup to the Frenchman is the ever capable Michel Vorm, who seems to be the preferred choice in cup competitions. At centre back Spurs have a partnership as good as any in the league, Belgian duo Vertonghen and Alderweireld have proven to be solid and classy. Behind them is Austrian Kevin Wimmer, and the potential of calling back Eric Dier to cover in defence. Full backs positions have usually been a problem for Tottenham, but competition for places has improved the performances of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, and any dip in form can see Ben Davies or Kieran Trippier step in seamlessly. The emergence of Dele Alli in midfield has been the catalyst behind Spurs good form, together with Eric Dier, Mousa Dembélé and Christian Eriksen, Tottenham now have a midfield that can hold its own with the very best. In back up there is also Ryan Mason, Tom Carroll and Nabil Bentaleb, all players who although not World beaters, can all function well and cover gaps. Harry Kane leads the line brilliantly, playing well above himself and has a goal scoring record that can be compared to the very best strikers in the game. Chadli and Lamela have grown into dangerous attacking options and in Korean Son Heung-Min, Tottenham have a player with big goals in his armoury. So although the squad isn’t large, or stacked with World Class names, there is no real weakness to it and as a team their combined abilities make them perhaps the strongest side in the division.
Can this be the year that Tottenham do the unexpected, the unbelievable? Yes, it can, will it happen, well it’s still very much a dream scenario for their fans as it stands, but an achievable dream. What is nice for their fans though is to be even talking about this, each year the aim is to finish hopefully fourth, maybe one day overtake the Arsenal, now the target has changed. Top four is almost already secured, they are not only hoping to finish above the Arsenal, they are hoping to finish above the lot. The big time is about to return to White Hart Lane in the form of Champions League football, and as the team sits in the shadows of a title race they may just be preparing the most surprising title win in living memory. The biggest test is still to come, they have positioned themselves for the largest case of ‘Spurs it all up’, if they avoid it they can become legend. A fan base desperate for modern day heroes, a club desperate for success, an unexpected one will taste all the sweeter.