The Season So Far
The progress of Mauricio Pochettino’s thrilling Tottenham Hotspur has continued apace this season, with landmark victories over Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund confirming their ascension and adding emphasis to the idea that this is a new, different, better-than-ever Tottenham. Harry Kane has been exceptional yet again, scoring 24 league and 7 Champions League goals so far, while Christian Eriksen, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have maintained consistently excellent levels and deserve all the praise heaped upon them. Son Heung-Min and Ben Davies have enjoyed breakout campaigns, while Dele Alli hasn’t been anywhere near as underwhelming as many would have us believe. This is very easily the best Spurs team since the 1960s.
At the same time, a word of caution: the budget of this Tottenham team is way below that of their competitors and, with a new stadium to build, their Arsenal-post-Emirates era is about to begin. Kyle Walker has already jumped ship and found greater wealth than he could imagine, not to mention instant success, at Manchester City; Danny Rose signalled his intention to follow suit last summer; Toby Alderweireld’s inability to agree terms on a new contract surely spell the end for him at
White Hart Lane Wembley. This is a team that could and probably will collapse at any moment – you can’t pay Christian Eriksen less than Jesse Lingard and expect to get away with it for long.
The Season Ahead
Sunday’s game will have a huge effect on the rest of Tottenham’s season. If they can put daylight between themselves and Chelsea, effectively locking down Champions League qualification for another year, they will see out the season comfortably, enjoy holding down fourth each week, and look forward to the FA Cup semi-final; if they lose, the ‘Spursy’ question and the nerves will come back into play, each slip-up will once again provoke panic, and we’ll all end up talking about Giorgio Chiellini’s observation that Tottenham’s history of almost-but-not-quite only leads to more and more collapses to add to that history.
Beyond Sunday, there’s the aforementioned FA Cup semi and the chance to actually win something for once. For a club desperate for tangible signs of evolution - hard evidence that they’re not just a flash in the footballing pan - that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Even further on from that, the futures of so many players are to be resolved and there are even doubts that Pochettino himself could be tempted to return to Paris Saint-Germain, a club where he spent years as a player and one that can offer him the resources and readymade quality that Tottenham simply can’t. It could be a very long summer for Spurs fans.
While Tottenham have moved on significantly and are no longer the relatively one-dimensional, overly vertical, counterattacking 4-2-3-1 side of a couple of years ago, they are currently at their best in that same starting 4-2-3-1 template. We should expect a heavy press, constant pressure on the man in possession and quick, co-ordinated bursts through the middle leading to early shots on goal.
The front four will play narrow with the width provided by overlapping full-backs, at times pinning Chelsea’s own wing-backs in. N’Golo Kanté will have to be at his best, and probably need another disciplined midfielder alongside him, if Chelsea are to handle the threat posed by Spurs’ varied and very effective attack.
Most obviously, they’re a devastating attacking unit. Only the once-in-a-lifetime Manchester City have taken more shots and only four have had more shots on target; only City and Liverpool have scored more goals and only those sides have higher Expected Goals counts; only Arsenal have created more chances from through-balls and only three teams have created more chances from set-plays. It doesn’t really matter how you try to stop them: they will eventually break you down.
Without the ball, they’re a perfectly co-ordinated pressing unit and they specialise in keeping the ball in the opposition half. Only Manchester City and Liverpool have allowed fewer shots on their goal this season and only those sides have played less football in their own half. If the opposition does manage to shoot, Hugo Lloris is a hard man to beat.
At the same time… they’re Tottenham. The worst and most painful thing about Chiellini saying that it’s simply part of Spurs’ identity to fail is that it’s so obviously true. It’s now ten years since they last won anything and we seem to spend winter and spring of every year talking Tottenham up as contenders only for them to find a way to lose against wilier opposition.
There’s also Mauricio Pochettino’s very questionable record away to the top clubs to consider. In his much heralded tenure, Spurs have only registered one victory away to another top six club, losing eleven times – this despite having, apparently, all the momentum in the world, and at various points playing opposition in discord or disarray. Sunday’s game will be a huge test of Tottenham’s credentials and at some point they’re going to have to step up and show the world their history isn’t weighing them down.
Oh, and they’re gonna have to do it without Harry Kane. Best of luck, Poch.
With Kane on the sidelines, man of the moment Son will surely start up front, with Erik Lamela, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen interchanging behind. With contract rebel Toby Alderweireld out of favour, the rest of the team basically picks itself.
As for Chelsea, Thibaut Courtois and Andreas Christensen face late fitness tests but both should be fine to play. A question mark remains over whether Conte will go with the discipline and positional sense of Tiémoué Bakayoko over the creativity and madcap headless chickening of Cesc Fàbregas alongside N’Golo Kanté, while it could be that Olivier Giroud represents a trustier, more mature presence up front than Álvaro Morata. We shall see.
A Spurs win here would effectively end Chelsea’s season, so of course Chelsea will win 2-0.