Spurs Deserve to be Considered Title Contenders
5th October 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
Tottenham Hotspur produced a near-perfect display to overcome Premier League leaders and title favourites Manchester City at White Hart Lane on Sunday.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men perfectly executed their gameplan, pressing their opposition relentlessly and tirelessly, forcing errors and winning the ball in dangerous areas. And, for the most part, the Lilywhites did a stellar job of cutting off the supply line to playmaker David Silva, stifling City in deep areas and ensuring they were not afforded the desired space and time to build their customary attacking patterns.
Pochettino and Pep Guardiola share some stylistic traits and philosophical beliefs. Both men believe in utilising talented young players, and their mutual love of high-energy pressing can be traced back to the same source: Marcelo Bielsa. Pochettino played under Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys, Espanyol and for the Argentinian national side, while Guardiola flew to Argentina to meet and talk football with El Loco before making his first steps into management.
The Catalan is rightly heralded one of the most brilliant, forward-thinking coaches in the game, but Pochettino showed why his name also deserves to be mentioned in such terms.
It could be argued that Guardiola’s men suffered for the absence of the injured Kevin De Bruyne, and thus lacked their usual fluency. But Spurs were also without, arguably, their most influential player, with star striker Harry Kane also missing due to injury.
Tottenham won 2-0 thanks to a Aleksandar Kolarov own goal and a 37th minute Dele Alli strike. The margin of victory was relatively comfortable, but the statistics suggest it was a tight encounter. Spurs attempted 13 shots to City’s 12 and landed seven on target, one more than their visitors.
As is usually the case, the Citizens dominated possession, enjoying a 58 per cent share of the ball, while Argentinian striker Sergio Agüero mustered four shots on target – three of which from inside the penalty area.
So it was by no means an easy victory for the home side, but Spurs showed that they could go toe-to-toe with City and underlined why they deserve to be considered genuine contenders for the Premier League crown this season.
Despite an end of season collapse, which ultimately saw them finish third behind bitter North London rivals Arsenal, it was Tottenham who pushed champions Leicester City hardest in the previous campaign.
There were always question marks over the legitimacy of Spurs as a truly top Premier League side, though. Were they just benefitting from the fact that the established elite – Manchester United, City, Arsenal and Liverpool – were all either in a transitionary phase or just plainly out of form?
And the theoretical matter of how they would cope were they forced to play without Kane for a period of time was a favourite bone of contention for many critics.
But Tottenham have set about showing that last season’s title challenge was not a one-off; not only are they just as good this time around, if anything, they are better.
Did they benefit from the regular top team’s being out of sorts? Well, heading into Sunday’s showdown, City were the form side in the country, guided by the man who most believe is best manager on the planet. Spurs showed that they can compete with the best and, on their day, they can beat the best.
How will they cope without Kane? Turns out they can cope just fine. Over the summer, Dutch striker Vincent Janssen was brought in from AZ Alkmaar for £17 million, but a player who was already at White Hart Lane filled Kane’s boots on Sunday.
South Korean attacker Son Heung-Min was signed from Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen for £22 million in the summer of 2015. On a personal level, his first season as the club was a disappointing one for the most expensive Asian footballer of all time. Son made 28 Premier League appearances last term, with just 13 of those as a starter, and scored only four goals.
It was rumoured that, during the summer, Son asked that he be allowed to leave White Hart Lane in search of regular playing time. But Pochettino assured him that he would be given a chance to prove his worth.
And this season, the versatile former Hamburg player has been outstanding. He’s already scored five goals – besting his tally for the entirety of the last campaign – and against City on Sunday, he was sublime as Spurs’ lone striker.
Son is far from a like-for-like stand-in for Kane. The South Korean lacks Kane’s physicality and poachers’ instincts. Instead, Son played to his strengths and helped Pochettino’s blueprint for beating Guardiola’s men come to fruition.
He pressed diligently from the front, never allowing the City centre-backs, Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones, to settle on the ball. Son also drifted from the central striker’s position, and dropped into the attacking midfield zone, acting as a false 9 and creating space for the likes of Dele Alli and Eric Lamela to break into.
This is exactly how the second goal came about. Spurs won possession high up the field and Son had dropped off the front line to look for the ball. When he received it to feet 20 yards out, Alli broke beyond him and into the box. Son slipped a perfectly weighted ball into Alli’s path and the England international swept home a confident finish.
Tottenham’s work in the transfer market over the summer has also given Pochettino a wider range of options, allowing him to construct a team dependent on the requirements of each game.
In signing midfielders Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko, brought in for £11 million from Southampton and £30 million from Newcastle United respectively, Spurs now have the option of greater physicality and athleticism in the centre of midfield.
Wanyama, tasked with shielding the back four, recovered the ball nine times against City, and won six tackles. The former Celtic midfielder is perfectly suited to anchoring the midfield in a game where Tottenham are expected to have a lower share of possession than their opponent. Should they expect to dominate the ball, they have the option of playing Eric Dier as the midfield pivot and utilising his superior passing skills.
Built on a solid defensive bedrock — thanks to Belgian duo Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen forming the finest centre-back partnership in the division — and with a level of unparalleled cohesive work-rate, Spurs are sturdy unit.
Add to that the creative forces of Christian Eriksen, Alli and Moussa Dembélé, as well as the chance-converting potency of Son and Kane, and it soon becomes apparent that Tottenham have all of their bases covered.
They may not have been many people’s pre-season tips for the title, but Spurs should be considered serious contenders.