It was shaking; I could swear I felt it shaking. As Harry Kane placed his effort into David Ospina’s far corner, the stadium was definitely shaking. But the lead didn’t last long and Tottenham went on to draw 2-2 at home to 10-man Arsenal. Whilst there was much underlying pride in such a young, energetic Spurs side that had put in a very strong performance, the time may have come where Spurs need to begin to put results at the forefront of their approach. In such a hotly contested, ever-changing title race, Spurs’ five point deficit – albeit with the best goal difference in the Premier League – is one that can be recovered. But is it time for Spurs to sacrifice excellent performances for the necessary three points at any cost?
There is no disputing the excellent season Tottenham have had this year, an extremely young side with a few experienced heads guided by a pragmatic, down-to-earth, hard-working manager – what’s not to like? Spurs could have six, possibly even seven, players in the England squad for the European Championships this summer – and whilst Spurs fans will be praying that nobody picks up an injury, there will be a sense of pride to be had about how far such a young group of players have come in such a short space of time. The work Mauricio Pochettino has done to get players in their national teams at Southampton, and now Tottenham, is simply remarkable.
Whilst 2015/16 began slowly and unremarkably for Tottenham, the performances left very little to be desired. Spurs were passing, pressing and creating like Pochettino’s Southampton team of 2013/14. The transitional year beforehand had seen some impressive performances, notably the 5-3 win at home to Chelsea, but also some mediocre games where Spurs never looked like achieving anything. Then, as with London buses, one win came and a fair few followed. But, again, Spurs slipped into old bad habits and were going into December with as many wins as draws in the League. After a 14 game unbeaten run, Spurs’ loss to Newcastle at White Hart Lane was a huge sucker punch but a kick up the backside too. In many of the draws in the first half of the season, Spurs had played well and created chances. In a 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion, Spurs had nine shots, 82% pass completion, created seven chances and defended tenaciously too; with 20 blocks, four saves from Hugo Lloris, 28 clearances and 14 interceptions. Similarly at the Emirates a month earlier, Spurs had 14 shots, created eight chances and made 14 crosses. Defensively, 14 interceptions, 36 clearances, 21 blocks and five Lloris saves meant it was a very impressive Tottenham showing, proving to the country that Pochettino’s men were not to be taken lightly. But they drew 1-1.
The second halves of December and January as well as the entirety of February were much more consistent months for Spurs. From January 23rd to the time of writing, Tottenham have won eight times, drew three and lost two, an impressive record worthy of title challengers. A 3-1 away win at Crystal Palace in January will be forever remembered for Dele Alli’s sumptuous strike, but Spurs were much deserved winners that day. The Lilywhites had 24 shots, created 20 chances and completed 82% of their passes. Defensively, despite Jan Vertonghen’s own goal and subsequent injury, Spurs were resolute – only needing to make seven interceptions. A struggling Palace side were left to shoot from distance and cross balls into the penalty area, threats Spurs dealt with easily – making 44 clearances, 17 blocks and another four saves from Lloris. They were the league’s meanest defence for a reason – they just didn’t let you in behind. If you were to score, it’d be a set piece or a wonder goal.
Spurs’ best win of the season, however, is one in which there was quality rather than quantity going forward – showing much steel in midfield and more solidity in defence. Spurs won 2-1, but created only three chances, had six shots and only made 13 crosses in 90 minutes. What won the game that day were 16 interceptions, 36 clearances, 24 blocks and five saves by Lloris – including one at the end that may just prove to be crucial to Spurs’ title challenge. What all these statistics show is that Spurs have not struggled to create chances in most of their games, nor have they struggled to take them in some games – but what they lack in most cases is killer instinct. Of Spurs’ 15 Premier League wins; six have been by one goal, three by two goals, five by three goals and one by four – the 5-1 rout of a depleted Bournemouth side. The six close wins were against Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Manchester City, Swansea and Watford – twice. In all six of those games, Tottenham’s second goal came after the 64th minute, with four of these coming after the 80th minute. And it’s not that Pochettino’s players didn’t create enough chances in those games, it’s just that they perhaps lack the experience and ruthlessness to kill teams off without having to enter ‘squeaky bum time’. What can be said is the way Spurs have dealt with pressure this year, when previous Tottenham teams would have blown a one-goal lead in the dying embers – or thrown away a draw versus a big side, like the North London Derby on Saturday. Pochettino’s side are evidently more resilient, but perhaps lack that cutting edge to see them top as of now.
But Spurs’ title hopes are by no means over – and this season can be considered a huge success regardless of how their Europa League campaign finishes and as long as they remain in the Champions League positions in the Premier League. Spurs have not lost a game by more than one goal in all competitions this season, losing only seven of their 42 games across the League, FA Cup, Capital One Cup and Europa League – something that is unheard of in their recent history. Whether Spurs find this cutting edge in the run-in is yet to be seen, but it is an aspect Pochettino, Paul Mitchell and Daniel Levy can definitely address over the summer. For now, it may just be a case of getting three points on the board – at all costs.