The Season So Far
Currently boasting the Premier League’s longest unbeaten run, a host of extremely likeable footballers and playing the kind of football that wins neutrals over in a heartbeat, things could hardly have gone better for Tottenham Hotspur so far in 2015-16. This time last year they were drifting, rudderless, searching for an identity and a way forward; now they’re flying, riding the crest of a wave and with the clearest identity of any established Premier League club.
Somehow they’re still only fifth in the table and yet there’s been an avalanche of hype in the last week or so: as usual, Spurs’ first good run of the season has got certain media blowhards talking about a title push, choosing to ignore that they’re Spurs and won’t win the league ever again. That said, given how mediocre and beige they’ve been since the first season under André Villas-Boas, it’s impossible to begrudge their fans getting excited now they’ve got a genuinely exciting team again.
The Season Ahead
As the optimism and excitement build at White Hart Lane, it’s tempting to pour cold water on the idea of Tottenham genuinely becoming a force this season, but with Chelsea struggling like hell there are few reasons why Spurs can’t gatecrash the top four. That said, there are a few reasons, and they’re substantial.
Firstly, they’ve got a young squad full of inexperienced and/or inconsistent players who’ve either never been in a top four push before, or have made their names out of playing well for half a season and then doing nothing the rest of the time. Second, they’re in the Europa League and The Punishing Thursday-Sunday-Thursday-Sunday Schedule™ is proven to reduce the chances of a side maintaining good league form over the course of the season. Third, they’ve only got one out-and-out striker – Harry Kane might be bloody brilliant but he’s still only one guy and in the contemporary age you can’t play an entire season with one striker.
At the moment Tottenham look like world-beaters but logic suggests they will come unstuck at some point and fall away, but Harry Kane has a habit of making logic look silly and we shouldn’t be too surprised if they do keep this up for long enough to finish fourth. Either way, really, their fans won’t mind – just having a team that’s competent, fun to watch and likeable is enough.
Insane energy levels and relentless forward momentum have formed a deadly combination so far this season and, given how lethargic and open Chelsea have looked for the most part, there are plenty of reasons for Blues fans to worry.
Mauricio Pochettino’s preference for uber-Bielsista gung-ho pressing is well-known but there are still few reliable counters to the system. He made Southampton the force they are by introducing the pressing game and organising it so well and he’s quickly repeated the trick at Tottenham. Off the ball, they’re extremely hard-working: only Liverpool have made more tackles per game this season and Spurs have made a lot more interceptions than the Reds.
This is the foundation for their success: not only does the heavy press keep the opposition miles from their goal, it allows them to win the ball high up the pitch and, unlike the vast majority of Premier League teams, Tottenham have got an extremely well-co-ordinated set of fast, attacking combination plays which allow them to pick their way through opposition teams swiftly and produce loads of shots on goal from good positions.
It’s an extremely effective system and one which is loads of fun to watch, as every single Spurs fan is letting the rest of us know at the moment.
Their pressing system is almost perfectly balanced and the stats prove it: only two teams have taken more shots on goal this season and neither of those have hit the target more than Spurs; only five teams have allowed fewer shots on their goal and Spurs generally restrict their opponents to shots from harmless areas.
As well as being strong in open play, they’re formidable at set-pieces: eight set piece goals is the Premier League’s highest total and reflective of their strength in this area – only two teams have created more chances from corners and only three from free-kicks. Without John Terry, Chelsea will probably be more vulnerable than usual and Spurs will fancy their chances from set pieces around the box.
Additionally, Spurs have the second highest save percentage so far this season – Hugo Lloris has stopped 81.8% of shots on target, suggesting it has to be something pretty special to get past him. Also, only two teams see their players skinned less often – they just don’t let you get past them.
There are two reasons it’s so hard to get past Spurs players. The first is because of the organised nature of the heavy press, which is obviously a strength. The second is their high level of aggression, which isn’t necessarily a plus: no team makes more fouls per game and with dribblers like Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro likely to start, there’s potential for Chelsea to get some joy once the fouls start racking up and the defenders pick up yellow cards.
Perhaps Tottenham’s biggest weakness is that they’re Tottenham. Alex Ferguson’s famously withering pre-match team-talk summed the club up in a nutshell and although there are plenty of observers noting that this appears to be the "least Spursy" Spurs team in living memory, it’s too soon to tell. They still have players like Kyle Walker, Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose in defence, all of whom are noted for looking like world-beaters one moment and amateurs the next, while the midfield still doesn’t inspire much confidence on paper. Frankly, it would be no surprise if Tottenham spectacularly self-destructed at any moment.
Spurs will be without media darling Dele Alli but otherwise their strongest eleven will be available. Pochettino picked a strong team for the long trip to Azerbaijan on Thursday and fatigue must be a worry, but when you’re on a run like Spurs’, momentum often means physical issues simply don’t matter.
John Terry and Ramires are expected to miss out for Chelsea, while Thibaut Courtois is still out for the foreseeable future. Otherwise there are no major issues and the line-up shouldn’t provide too many surprises.
The betting markets seem to have this game as too close to call and this writer is inclined to agree. However, a prediction has to be made, so I’ll sit on the fence and say 1-1.