Before the loss against Newcastle, Spurs weren’t exactly reeling, but some of their verve and joy gone away in their performances against Chelsea and West Brom. It wasn’t that the unbeaten run had falsely foretold Spurs’ future; it was that they seemed to be coasting a bit too much. The comments from manager and players indicated that they needed a reset, and the loss to Newcastle was a covertly welcome respite.
Since then, Spurs were opportunistic against Southampton, ruthless against Norwich, and albeit a bit lucky against Watford, just clinical enough. Spurs have still lost only four games across all competitions in 26 games. That is a remarkable achievement, and one that has not been talked about that much. An argument can be made that there were too many draws early on in the season, but they’ve now won three in a row and are beginning to sow the seeds of a top-four finish.
The team has had its bad moments in every game, particularly slow starts in all of the recent fixtures, but once they got their feet wet, it didn’t take long for them to turn the tides. Quite a bit of that has to do with how well Mousa Dembele has been playing, and his recent injury is certainly a concern. Because of that form, Spurs have the best defensive record in the league. For a team that conceded almost as many goals last season as Burnley, who were relegated, to transform into a responsible and tactically drilled defensive side without losing much cutting edge is a credit to the squad and manager. They saw the problems of a season ago and diligently worked to fix them.
Maybe the biggest conundrum facing Mauricio Pochettino down the stretch deals with rotation. His Europa League team selections give a hint as to how he wants to rotate, and the bench is now full of players that either had earned starts last season or earlier this season. How he massages their egos while keeping the winning momentum will be an interesting juggling act. Nabil Bentaleb, Nacer Chadli, Ryan Mason, Son Heung-min and even Tom Carroll have all at one point or another earned starts this season, and as the bench begins to fill up again, Pochettino has to balance maintaining good form and rewarding players who have earned their places. The good news is that the fixture list begins to fill up again once the FA Cup begins, so rotation is coming. The question is how much.
There have been two turning points in this season for Spurs, both when the pressure was starting to ratchet up, albeit in different ways. At Sunderland, Spurs hadn’t yet won a game and were 10 minutes away from another frustrating draw when Ryan Mason scored a pyrrhic goal to lift Spurs to their first win. After that, they began their true march up the table. And after the loss to Newcastle, the team was clinical enough to punish Southampton and stop a mini-slide that had begun against Chelsea.
Now, as much as Spurs supporters don’t want to hear it, the team has a chance to challenge for the title, and showing the resolve they did at Vicarage Road is evidence that they can mount a charge. Top four is and always has been the goal, but with the depth of the squad, the character and attitude of the players and manager, and the momentum they’ve found again, why not?
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