A shock season ended with despair at White Hart Lane, but Tottenham have the goods to make this campaign a very exciting one.
On the back of their highest league finish since 1990, Tottenham Hotspur will play in the Champions League group stages this season. No matter how last season ended or how this one will progress, that is a major accomplishment upon which Mauricio Pochettino and his squad can hang their collective hats. This will be their first such match since their 5-0 slaughter by Real Madrid in the 2011 quarterfinals and their second Champions League (or equivalent) campaign since 1962, so excitement will be abundant.
Transfers In: Victor Janssen (22.1M Euro, AZ Alkmaar), Victor Wanyama (14.4M Euro, Southampton)
Transfers Out: Alex Pritchard (9.4M Euro, Norwich City), Federico Fazio (Loan, AS Roma)
Tottenham’s season could be encapsulated in just a pair of sentences. While Premier League giants crashed around them, Spurs spent three months waiting for the one key week when they could finally jump over Leicester for the title. That week simply refused to arrive, and a sluggish home stretch saw Arsenal earn their 21st straight St. Totteringham’s Day.
It’s patently ridiculous how such disappointment last spring could lead into an exciting fall, but that is basically the essence of football in North London. The excitement is well justified, as Mauricio Pochettino returns his entire first team squad in an attempt to repeat their run to the Champions League places. With only Moussa Dembele arguably passing his peak years, there is significant room for players to improve individually as well as within the team concept.
Make no mistake, Spurs were legitimately very good last year. Harry Kane won the golden boot, Christian Eriksen finished second in assists, and Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen backed the strongest defense in the league. Expected goals mirrored the common stats, with Tottenham finishing second best in differential and best in expected goals allowed. This was a strong squad that earned every last point they got last season, and possibly even some beyond that.
Transfer season has brought very little squad disruption as well, as chairman Daniel Levy sold only five minutes of first team football from last year’s team sheet. And currently, the two new faces look to be near perfect fits. Victor Wanyama was brought in to rotate with Dembele when needed and provide a physical midfield presence that could not be replicated by current players like Ryan Mason or Tom Carroll. At 25, he is right in his athletic prime and has already worked in Pochettino’s particular system before, as they were both at Southampton in the 2013-2014 season. Janssen has a higher price tag due to his youth and potential, but his role will be limited to that of back-up striker for the immediate future.
These transfers will give Poch the opportunity to rest Harry Kane, something he barely did last season, as well as play a legitimate two striker system if necessary without having to shoehorn Heung-min Son into that role. Both players provide tactical flexibility and much needed depth, and neither appear to be big enough to ruffle any feathers within this already well-drilled squad, which makes this a very good transfer window for Spurs.
That depth is likely to be needed much more than it was last year. Spurs were already playing in the Europa League last year, so their number of fixtures may not rise dramatically. However, they were able to rest key players in those games last season and they will not be able to do the same for Champions League. Spurs have reasonable cover across the pitch, but playing 180 tough minutes most weeks is certain to stretch their squad depth in places it did not last year.
After the Leicester shock wore off, the one key stat that was repeated ad nauseam about the miracle Foxes concerned their lineup. Leicester’s ability to keep reeling off results was directly attributed to their ability to keep their best players on the field, as they led the league in minutes played by their starting outfield ten with almost 85% of all available minutes. Lost in the hubbub was that Spurs were the only squad even close to fielding as consistent a first team, and no other top-half club hit even 75% with their starting outfield.
It’s great for development and chemistry that Pochettino was able to trot out the same first team players over and over again last season, but clearly Tottenham and Leicester were the anomaly compared to the rest of the contending squads. Even though the Spurs squad lies largely within their athletic prime, which usually helps prevent injuries and the need for rest days, their active press is a system that lends itself to increased injury and fatigue, making this consistency unlikely to continue.
This provides us a new lens with which to view Levy’s summer dealings. Spurs dropping their minutes distribution toward the level of the rest of the top half would mean losing approximately 10% of their season to lower status players, and increasing the stakes of their non-league games will add an even higher burden. Assuming a prioritization of Champions League matches, Pochettino could be looking at replacing over 5,000 league minutes that last year were played by his starting cohort. Wanyama and Janssen can make up a portion of that, but asking the remainder to come from increased contribution by in house solutions is a big ask.
The overall picture of Tottenham heading into 2016-2017 is that of a young and improved squad that will be stretched thinner this year due to increased responsibility and expectations. Even that leaves a lot up to interpretation, however, as Spurs will be participating in four competitions of varying length, difficulty, and priority, so let’s take each of those on one by one.
League Cup: Who cares? Tottenham get a bye until late September, which is nice, and likely won’t be playing any of their top eighteen players even when they do play. This might as well not exist.
FA Cup: Spurs won’t join up with the FA Cup until January, by which time they will already know their European fate. A sustained Champions League run will probably see Poch treat the FA Cup like the League Cup, while a washout could make this competition a priority. Tottenham’s speed and press have worked well in knockout format over the last couple years, so if they decide that the FA Cup matters they will be a serious contender for the trophy.
Champions League: Here’s where the fun begins. As mentioned before, Tottenham’s up tempo style tends to fare well in tournament matches, so despite a talent deficit against the elite European powers, they still have the capability to win a match or two as legitimate underdogs. Their UEFA Coefficient makes it likely they will be drawn in Pot 3, so their prospects for advancement rest largely on which league champion they are drawn with. If their Pot 1 team is CSKA Moscow or Benfica, I would give Spurs even odds of advancing, while a match with Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, or Bayern Munich would likely send them packing. Still, the Champions League draw has a lot of randomness, and Spurs definitely have a real chance of playing in the knockout rounds in 2017.
Premier League: This is where the issue of increased quality against increased quantity really hits. Tottenham could have as many as twelve league matches impacted by Champions League lineup selection before even getting to 2017 and will be missing Dembele for their first four matches due to his ban at the end of last season. On the other hand, stars Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane are only just reaching their prime, and the youthful squad looks certain to improve. I think the optimistic look here is to say that Spurs can maintain their level of overall quality and reach their point total from last season. The problem with that is that their 70 point haul would not have been good enough for third in any season since 2006-2007, and would have been good for fourth in less than half of them. With improvement appearing unassailable from Chelsea and Manchester United, Spurs are still likely to be odd man out when it comes to the Champions League places, and any level of slippage could see them out of Europe altogether behind Liverpool, West Ham, Everton, or Leicester.
Take it all in one piece, and it looks like Tottenham will be having a much more exciting season than a prosperous one. Their youth, coherence, and high octane style give them loads of potential, but a relatively thin, inexperienced squad will likely keep them shunted out of England’s elite crew.
Their final league standing may depend more on the relative improvements made by Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool, but they will hang around the top of the table for parts of the season and be a real nuisance for the elite clubs. Not only do they get a guaranteed slot in the Champions League group stages, but as long as they don’t draw a group of death they will have a good chance to make the knockout stages. Last year’s Tottenham run did not bring them up to snuff with the rest of Europe’s elite, but it could well be a sneak preview of the years to come.
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