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Tottenham’s Champions League Staying Power Is Put to the Test

Gaining entry to Europe’s elite competition was a remarkable achievement for Tottenham’s young and talented core of players. Remaining there, and advancing, will be a harder challenge.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What a difference one game makes! Prior to Tottenham’s impressive demolition of Chelsea this past weekend, it was hard to paint a rosy picture for their season. Their Premier League results have been largely fine—they sit third with 30 points, five points behind Manchester City—but injuries, a stark lack of new players, and possible World Cup fatigue were making a team that had been so vibrant start to look a little jaded. Saturday’s win against Chelsea turned that idea on its head as they raced to a 3-0 lead within 60 minutes, reflecting everything expected of a Mauricio Pochettino side and much of what had been missing this season. Pressing, power, pace, and guile all came to the fore.

They’ll need more of that to rescue a faltering UEFA Champions League campaign. A win at home Wednesday against Inter Milan is essential to their continued participation in that competition. They then face Arsenal in the North London derby on Sunday.

Tottenham continue to try and shake their reputation as a team that habitually falls short. They’ve consistently challenged high up the Premier League table under Pochettino’s tutelage but have won zero trophies. Turning the sixth-biggest club in England financially into perennial top-four contenders is a fine achievement for Pochettino and chairman Daniel Levy, but trophies remain the currency of fandom, and kicking up to that level would be a worthy reward for the last three seasons of consistency. They’ve at least been able to keep their best players. In the past, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Dimitar Berbatov, and Michael Carrick sought transfers and achieved glory elsewhere. In recent years, only Kyle Walker has left and truly prospered elsewhere.

However, the problems Tottenham currently face are not invisible. The team is homeless: Work on a new stadium was intended to be complete by the start of this season, and it’s unknown exactly when in 2019 it will open. In the meantime, the team has continued to play home games at Wembley. Road games have seen success: Seven wins in eight games was the bedrock to this fast start, but the team has rarely seen scintillating play. Five of those seven wins have been by a single goal. Coming out on the right side of close games may be a pleasant habit to accrue, but it likely isn’t a skill.

Tottenham has also benefited from a large positive defensive skew. They have fielded three goalkeepers this season: Hugo Lloris (nine Premier League games), Paulo Gazzaniga (two games), and Michel Vorm (two games). Data from StatsBomb shows that each of the three keepers has saved more goals than might be expected based on the end location of shots. Vorm and Gazzaniga are ahead by around one goal each, and Lloris is ahead by more than five. Through 13 games, Tottenham has an 82 percent save percentage for shots on target, which is extremely high considering league averages tend to land at around 70 percent. Even David de Gea’s stellar 2017-18 season for Manchester United landed at only 80 percent. Somewhere along the way, more goals will likely go against Tottenham.

It’s not just shorter-term variable metrics that paint a worrying picture for Tottenham. More sturdy long-term metrics have moved in the wrong direction over the course of the season, too. Last season, expected goals—a useful measure of team quality based on the quality of chances they create and concede—placed Tottenham comfortably third, close to Liverpool, but well behind Manchester City. They’ve fallen this season from an advantage of +0.8 expected goals per game to +0.4, which is still good enough to rank fourth, but isn’t decisively better than teams like Bournemouth or Watford, at least so far. That the team is allowing roughly as many shots as it takes is also a significant negative trend away from previous seasons, even taking into account that they’ve played more games on the road than at home.

It’s hard not to make an association between the team’s lack of recruitment in the summer and the performance drop-off. Even allowing for fiscal prudence against a backdrop of spiraling stadium costs, it was still surprising that the club did not purchase anyone at all. Should the season start to meander rather than prosper, this will be the one factor that will be cited as evidence of negligence. The existing squad appears to have suffered more than most from the long World Cup summer. Harry Kane, Kieran Trippier, Dele Alli, Danny Rose, and Eric Dier all featured for England until the semifinals, as did Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, and Mousa Dembélé for Belgium. Hugo Lloris won the whole event with France. Six of those nine players have missed time due to injury since, with Trippier, Rose, and Dembélé all currently out and Vertonghen just about to return. Even allowing for modern Premier League squad depth to provide cover for injuries, the rotation Pochettino has favored, especially in fullback positions, is suddenly hard to achieve.

Furthermore, there’s speculation regarding the future of Christian Eriksen, the heartbeat of the team since his arrival in 2013. Eriksen has been loyal to Tottenham so far, but will turn 27 soon and has 18 months left on his contract. It is not implausible that he may see his future elsewhere. With Pochettino, Kane, and Alli all signed on to lucrative long-term deals within the past few months, Levy, ever watchful of contracts, will be loathe to see as valuable a player as Eriksen enter the last season of his contract without either locking him down or moving him on.

This team is entering a spell when it will need rebuilding. Despite being linked to nearly every vacant top job, Pochettino appears committed to his role. Central midfield has been crying out for a star signing for at least a year. Dembélé, who thanks to injuries appears an old 31-year-old, remains enigmatic and uniquely talented, but is out of contract this summer. Victor Wanyama hasn’t managed to find his old zip after coming back from cartilage damage early in 2018. Harry Winks remains a good prospect, but his own injury woes wiped out most of last season for him, and Eric Dier feels like the perfect sideman to a player with a bit more attacking verve (a player Tottenham do not really possess). These issues have led to more starts for Moussa Sissoko, and he has confounded expectations with a series of disciplined and physically robust performances.

Fullback remains an area prime for retooling. Danny Rose has played sporadically since a knee injury sidelined him for 10 months in 2017, leaving Ben Davies (a solid replacement, but probably not more) carrying the workload. On the other side Trippier parlayed a successful World Cup to move onto set pieces and has become a consistent attacking threat, but perhaps lacks in defense. Serge Aurier has been favored less frequently this season and has had to put an error strewn 2017-18 season behind him. There remain several players with extensive injury records and concerns about decline. Pochettino is loyal to his charges, but practical decisions will need to be made eventually.

There are bright spots elsewhere in the squad. Twenty-year-old Argentine centerback Juan Foyth has found a first-team breakthrough after his 2017 arrival. After giving away two penalties in his Premier League debut just three weeks ago, he then scored the only goal in a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace, and marked his debut for the national team with a man of the match performance as Argentina defeated Mexico 2-0 in a friendly. It’s possible that he and Colombian Davinson Sánchez, 22, could form a long-term central defensive partnership for the club.

Erik Lamela and Lucas Moura both now look like a a good rotational fit in one of the attacking slots. Lamela (another player who has struggled with injuries) is fit and firing, and Moura is well settled after a January move from Paris Saint-Germain.

However, part of why we’ve seen so much of these two is because of the absences of both Alli and Eriksen. When they play alongside Kane and Son Heung-min, as we saw against Chelsea, Tottenham has perhaps their strongest front four.

Let’s not forget Kane’s progress. He looks as though he may have returned to something close to his best. In five matches for club and country since the start of November, he has scored five times from 29 shot attempts, a shot volume closer to his 2017 peak of more than five per game.

StatsBomb

The result against Chelsea arrived at exactly the right time for Tottenham. They’ve lost games against Manchester City, Liverpool, and Barcelona, and even their victory against Manchester United saw them heavily outplayed in the first half. Pochettino’s players have not always found their peak form during autumn but have seen improvement as the winter kicked in. It could well be that the team is primed to do so again. The schedule sets up nicely: After Arsenal, Tottenham has a run of 13 games in which the only Big Six team they face is Manchester United, and they have eight home games during that run. Most important is Wednesday’s game against Inter Milan. Memories of the last time an Italian team visited are fresh and raw. Juventus’ 2-1 victory back in March extinguished Tottenham’s Champions League hopes and once more framed Pochettino’s side as coming up short exactly when it mattered most.

Tottenham is well-positioned for another top-four finish and a win against Arsenal would leave them five points clear of their rivals. Pochettino’s methods and a core of talented players have powered a strong platform of success, which has been managed without the spending power of their rivals. This season’s performances have hinted at regression exactly when they needed to maintain their level. Yet the Chelsea game was a reminder of what they can do at their very best. Long term, they may not be able to comfortably withstand the loss of a key player like Eriksen, and certainly won’t be forgiven if they complete further transfer windows without signings. Pochettino remains the vital component and is committed to his work. He has given the club a new footballing identity, and without silverware, his job remains unfinished.