By David de Winter – Sports Editor
Way back in August, in this very publication, I rather rashly predicted that Leicester City were certainties for relegation and that Spurs would finish outside the top four, in either 5th or 6th place. Well, as these two clubs currently occupy the top two spots in the Premier League table, this particular ‘expert’ is wiping plenty of egg off his face. But how have Tottenham been transformed from perennial nearly men into genuine title contenders?
Much credit must go to manager Mauricio Pochettino and chairman Daniel Levy. It was Levy who made the rather unpopular decision to dispense with Tim Sherwood at the end of the 2013/14 season, despite the former Spurs midfielder having done a solid job in his 5 month stint at the helm. The Tottenham owner doesn’t have the greatest track-record in managerial appointments, especially foreign ones (Juande Ramos and Jacques Santini anyone?). However, Levy identified then-Southampton manager Pochettino, who had saved the Saints from relegation in 2012/13 and then promptly led them to an 8th place finish the following season, as the man to take Spurs to the next level and, to his credit he seems to have got that decision correct.
Tottenham’s transfer policy has also undertaken a radical change. Gone are the days when they would splash the cash on any half-decent young English player (David Bentley) or expensive foreign import (Roberto Soldado, Helder Postiga, Paulinho – ironically this mantra has now been picked up by Liverpool). Now Spurs seem to have a much more thorough and slightly less scattergun transfer policy, demonstrated by their left-field purchases of Dele Alli, Kieran Trippier and Eric Dier, and they are reaping the rewards.
What about the manager? From his days at Southampton, Pochettino had a reputation of playing attractive, free-flowing, attacking football, a style synonymous with Tottenham Hotspur. However, his first season in charge wasn’t enormously successful as the club secured 5th place in the league, losing 12 matches in the process. It seemed that Pochettino was finding his feet, taking time to implement his methods and also to mould the squad to his liking. Nevertheless he was instrumental in the development of the likes of Harry Kane, who made his breakthrough under the Argentinian, Ryan Mason and Dier, who has blossomed as a defensive midfielder this season.
Consequently, the team are reaping the rewards. For me, one key aspect is the consistency of selection. Spurs now have a real spine through the team that play week-in, week-out which has created confidence throughout the side and accordingly the players have developed effective on-field relationships. The likes of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (who have both been brilliant this season), midfielders Moussa Dembele, Alli and Christian Eriksen and finally Kane have all regularly started and, more importantly, delivered consistent top-level performances.
This was no better highlighted than the victory at Manchester City. Having seen the Citizens equalise, a Spurs side of yesteryear would have either capitulated or, at best, held on for a draw. Not the Spurs of 2015/16. They went back on the attack and reaped the rewards as Eriksen scored a well-taken winner. The Lilywhites have transformed from a team with a slightly soft underbelly at key times to a side with a steely determination.
So can they actually win the Premier League? Whatever happens between now and May, this season can be counted as an unequivocal success for the north London club. Even if they don’t win the title, they have become challengers for the first time the Premier League era and, with the age of their squad, top four stalwarts for the foreseeable future. Alongside playing an attractive brand of football, this is perhaps Pochettino’s crowning achievement.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Spurs will win the league because they don’t have enough winning experience in their squad. But, as I alluded to, they have a relatively young squad and with Alli, Kane, Dier, Erik Lamela and Eriksen yet to hit their supposed peak, they can surely go from being challengers to winners in the not-too-distant future.