Tottenham mean business
IT’S WIDE open. Seven games in and just two points separate the top four in the Premier League title race. And you wouldn’t totally rule out sixth and seventh either.
At least that’s something to cheer us as we brace for yet another unnecessary, tedious and momentum-busting international break.
In six short weeks, we’ve already gone from thinking it’s a three-horse race to two to an absolute doddle for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
But first Celtic (in the Champions League) and then Spurs have shown their weaknesses, while Manchester United do not convince, Liverpool are still dodgy at the back, Chelsea need a major refit and Arsenal are just Arsenal.
The least expected of the contenders are Spurs who beat City at their own high-pressing game on Sunday.
Whenever we talk about Spurs ‘meaning business’ it usually refers to chairman Daniel Levy conducting an auction for one of his players – and then demanding the buying club pays for his flight tickets, drinks and granny’s funeral.
On the field, though, it has been anything but hard ball: all too often the Lilywhites have been lily-livered – caving in just when it matters.
Mauricio Pochettino (caricature) was hired to change that and, during last season’s very unSpurs-like run for the title, it looked as if he’d succeeded – until a very Spurslike collapse at the death allowed Arsenal to pip them for second place.
Fears that the hungry, young English core of players was over-rated mounted in the summer when five of them formed the backbone of England’s dire effort in the Euros. Backbone? If only.
When that was followed by a Wengeresque reluctance to spend in the window, it looked suspiciously like Spurs were ‘doing an Arsenal’ off the field at least – being thrifty whilst building their new stadium took priority. But we had underestimated Pochettino.
The English core was not that bad – they simply caught the contagious disease that turns the Three Lions into mangy pussy-cats during tournaments – and the previous view that Tottenham would grow as a team does not look unfounded.
Even without talisman Harry Kane, they ripped into City and gave Pep – and the rest of the division - a lot to think about.
They exposed City’s creaking back line that even John Stones could not cover and Pep can expect more teams to come at them like this.
The most impressive thing about City was the way Pep took the loss – dignified, toys still in the pram, and more or less saying we had been expecting too much.
“[Losing] It is part of the game, part of our job,” he said. “I never thought that we would not lose a game, you can’t imagine that.
“It is normal to the process, sometimes it happens and it can help us improve. I am not here for the talk around me, I am here to do my job. It is October, you cannot imagine my team is already done. I am new here.”
Indeed, it would be ludicrous to suggest he’s been sussed and City’s season is about to come off the rails – as it did last year under Manuel Pellegrini. This is a stronger, more motivated side and Pep is not a stop-gap topping up his pension. He will sort it.
Nor will he have been totally shocked to lose to Pochettino – even at Barcelona, with his greatest side in 2009, he was held to a 0-0 draw by the Argentine’s Espanyol. Like Spurs, Espanyol pressed and pressed.
So are Spurs the real deal? Well, they spent relatively little in the summer with Vincent Janssen and Victor Wanyama the only major additions. But it was the one who nearly got away who has made the difference.
Son Heung-min has stepped into the breach left by Kane’s injury – and been a revelation. It’s not that Kane won’t get his place back but Spurs will be difficult to defend against with Kane back and Son in such unstoppable form.
With a growing solidity in defence, marauding fullbacks, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Eric Lamela adding goals and creativity in midfield, they could be a force to be reckoned with.
The main worry is their lack of depth which could be exposed if they reach the business end in Europe.
Indeed, as last year when Leicester were allowed to sneak through and win the title, none of the big boys look like the finished article.
Liverpool were looking good but their narrow squeak at Swansea revealed familiar flaws at the back.
The centreback pairing needs more of an understanding while the arrival of Loris Karius has been a confidence booster only for Simon Mignolet – suggesting that the Belgian could be back in the side sooner than expected. As for United, disappointment in not beating Stoke and slipping further away from the top four was understandable but rather than panic they should put it down to one of those days – when an unknown keeper plays out of his skin to thwart them.
Yes, they should have put away several other chances, but you feel they will be there or thereabouts.
As for Spurs, we now know why Pochettino was headhunted first by Southampton and then by Spurs, and why Fergie, no less, rated him the best manager in the Premier League last season.
Regardless of Levy, if the Argentine can engender this kind of commitment, Spurs will mean business.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (left) walks off dejected with defender Gael Clichy after their 2-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspurs in English Premier League match at White Hart Lane in London on Sunday.