Spurs have been here before.
In each of the previous two seasons, Mauricio Pochettino’s side have peaked right at the end of the crowded holiday period, their rivals’ physical and mental fitness depleted after a grueling run of games played in the bitter English cold. On New Year’s Day 2015, Tottenham trounced Jose Mourinho’s eventual title-winners Chelsea 5-3; a good run of form around this time last year finally caught the attention of pundits and fans who’d been busy with Leicester City’s Cinderella story.
In each of the previous two seasons, however, Spurs stuttered, and then eventually collapsed—the horrifying and spectacular 2-2 draw to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last May presaged by the significantly more embarrassing 1-1 draw to West Bromwich Albion a week earlier. Ultimately, Tottenham cracked under the very pressure that Pochettino demanded they exert upon their opponents—the high defensive line, the counter-press, the seemingly-boundless running.
Now, however, something is different. Tottenham have gotten past an unfortunate series of injuries and suspensions, the England internationals’ Euro 2016 hangover, and the humiliating Champions League run that defined the first half of the season. In spite of all that, Spurs managed to hang around 5th place in the table.
Since stomping Swansea 5-0 on December 3rd, Tottenham have lost once in 10 games in all competitions, their sole defeat a 1-0 away loss at Old Trafford. They won the games they were expected to win, and decisively so—3-0 over Hull City; 4-1 over Southampton; 4-1 over Watford—and they ended Chelsea’s 13-game unbeaten streak with a Dele Alli double earlier this month, the resurgence of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard notwithstanding. On Saturday, playing West Brom at White Hart Lane, they put in the standout performance on a weekend that saw Everton (Everton!) upset Manchester City (Manchester City!) 4-0 (4-0!) and Manchester United scrape out a 1-1 draw against Liverpool.
Hosting West Brom is rarely a pleasant experience, as the Tony Pulis-led side defends notoriously well, playing a disciplined, physical game that all but the most creative sides struggle to break through. (Before this weekend, they allowed just 10 goals away from home all season—third best in the league after Tottenham and Chelsea.) Spurs, meanwhile, thrive on open play, hunting in packs and running their opponents ragged—conditions West Brom are never likely to provide. On Saturday, though, it didn’t matter: Tottenham were playing cat-and-mouse football, teasing and snarling and torturing the visitors. The numbers speak for themselves: Spurs held 73 percent of the possession and took 22 shots, including 11 on target; West Brom took three shots, none of which were on target. Spurs won 4-0.
Harry Kane got his first hat-trick of the season, and were it not for several brilliant stops by West Brom keeper Ben Foster, he could easily have had four or five goals altogether. Unlike the highlight reel fodder produced recently by Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Olivier Giroud, none of Tottenham’s goals were particularly spectacular. The first began as a throw in to Mousa Dembélé, who crossed square to Victor Wanyama, who drove forward, pulling defenders towards him, laid it off to Christian Eriksen on the edge of the box, who dinked it forward to Kane. After a slight feint to put Foster off balance, the striker—somehow unmarked in the penalty box—smacked an unstoppable shot into the top left corner. It was with his third, though, that Spurs showed they weren’t just putting on a clinic but actually scoring for fun: a give-and-go with Dele Alli, who scooped a cheeky pass over the West Brom back line for the assist (having already added another nutmeg to his running tally).
On the rare occasion that West Brom were able to move the ball out of their own half, they were met by Toby Alderweireld, flanked by Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier—a back line that, in whatever formation, has only allowed five goals from open play in the league this season. It was all, in the final analysis, very straightforward.
So. Second in the table in mid-January, Tottenham are title contenders once again. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either an Arsenal fan or, more likely, a Spurs supporter who, after years of dashed hopes, cannot accept that this team is as good as it was last season—possibly even better. Still, the North London club is punching above its weight. As Football365 points out, the starting XIs of the top six teams this weekend included 30 players purchased for more than £15 million; meanwhile, not a single one of Tottenham’s starters cost that much.
Next weekend, Spurs travel to the Etihad, where they will face a troubled Manchester City, not lacking for finances but certainly lacking for results. Reports that Pep Guardiola wants to drop an exorbitant sum on Spurs’ full-back pair of Danny Rose and Kyle Walker are probably more fantastic than fact-based, although they emphasize the weakness that Tottenham revealed in the 2-0 win over City at White Hart Lane in October and that Everton’s wonderteens exploited just this weekend: creaky fullbacks like Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, and Pablo Zabaleta simply cannot keep up. (No two of these three are physically capable of handling Rose and Walker, who are easily the best in their positions in England and among the best in Europe.) That the gilded, oil-money laden club should be so dependent on aging and out-of-position talent—Guardiola played Zabaleta in central midfield this weekend—is baffling; that this should be combined with goalkeeper Claudio Bravo’s apparent inability to grapple with the physicality of the Premier League has proved cataclysmic.
After a sparking run of form, this is when Spurs need to solidify their position—the thing that they have failed to do in the past two years. The run-in is, on paper, relatively easy. After visiting City, their only other away fixture to a top six side is a February visit to Liverpool, with whom they are currently level on points and above on goal difference. Arsenal, meanwhile, are just a point behind, in fourth. At City, Tottenham should reasonably expect to apply the exquisite pressure they’ve always applied under Pochettino; what remains to be seen is whether Spurs will buckle themselves.
The title is still Chelsea’s to lose—but if they do, Tottenham look best positioned to take it from them.