How Will Tottenham Follow Up Last Year's Successful Campaign?
Tottenham Hotspur did their best to take advantage of circumstances last season as several of the traditional Premier League powers underwhelmed, but Spurs ultimately failed to catch Leicester City, who captured a historic championship. As a consolation prize, Tottenham secured a spot in the Champions League.
The season ended on a sour note as Tottenham fell to third place, below archrivals Arsenal, on the final day of the season, but taken on the whole, it was an impressive step forward in their second season under manager Mauricio Pochettino.
How Spurs follow up on that performance is anyone’s guess, as they have had so many false dawns in the past, but one can look to history, circumstances, and statistics to make that guess an educated one.
One of the keys to Tottenham’s recent success has been Pochettino’s commitment to physical fitness within his squad. Players describe his training sessions as the most grueling they have been through in their careers, while simultaneously praising the positive effect they have on match day performances.
This shows through in the statistics, as well.
According to stats aggregated by the EA Sports Player Performance Index in early March, when the title race was still wide open, Spurs were covering the most distance of any team in the Premier League in 2016. Rather than tiring, the players had actually improved in this regard over the course of the season.
The squad was averaging 117.74 kilometers per match, which was 3.13 kilometers more than next-best Bournemouth, 5.69 kilometers more than rivals Arsenal, and 6.58 kilometers more than champions Leicester.
Spurs also finished the season with an average of 17.3 shots per game, 6.6 of which were on target. Both of which were easily tops in the league. By comparison, Liverpool were second at 16.6 shots (5.3 on target) and Manchester City were third at 16.2 (5.5 on target).
|Rank||Team||Shots per game||Shots on target per game|
|5||West Ham United||14.7||4.9|
Spurs did not simply improve by out-working opponents, however; Pochettino’s training sessions have also led to a dramatic improvement in set pieces and defensive organization. Previously maligned by fans for their inability to make anything of dead ball opportunities, Spurs led the league last season in goals from set pieces with 17.
They also finished tied with Manchester United for the fewest goals allowed in the league (35); not surprising from a manager who played his career as a center back, but unheard of in recent Tottenham history. Coupling that with the second-most goals scored (69) left Spurs with the top goal differential in the league at plus-34.
By the numbers, there is certainly an argument to be made that Spurs were the top team in the league for most of the season.
Despite all of the impressive statistics, however, Tottenham eventually did fade over the final month of the campaign. Unfortunately, this may be the other edge of the sword with Pochettino’s fitness-intensive, high-pressing philosophy -- fatigue sets in over a long enough period of time.
Spurs started April with a 1-1 draw at Liverpool followed by an impressive 3-0 victory at home against Manchester United and a 4-0 win away at Stoke. From there, though, it was all downhill.
Successive draws to West Brom and Chelsea followed by losses to Southampton and Newcastle (a shocking 5-1 capitulation) left them with only two points from their crucial final four games.
Pochettino has averaged only 7.5 points over the final six games of the season since arriving in the Premier League when he took over Southampton in January of 2013. It’s a hallmark that the Argentinian will have to shake if he expects to come away with silverware at the end of the any season but, thankfully for him, there are signs Tottenham may present the perfect situation for him to do so.
One definite positive the Tottenham manager can point to is improvement in his second season with both Premier League clubs he has managed. Southampton finished 14th after Pochettino took over midway through the 2012-13 campaign, then rose to an eighth-place in 2013-14, which was, at the time, the Saints best-ever finish in the Premier League.
Similarly, Spurs finished fifth in Pochettino’s first year in charge in 2014-15 and rose to third in 2015-16, which was their best finish of the Premier League era.
Given time to bring in his own players and instill his philosophy, Pochettino has proven he is a manager that gets results.
While so many are caught up in the excitement of such established managers as Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, and Antonio Conte taking over at rival clubs, Pochettino is already two years into his current project. While the rosters of those clubs are chopped up and ridiculous fees are thrown at the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and (maybe) Paul Pogba, Tottenham already have an established core that had the youngest average age in the Premier League last season and gained the experience of a title chase.
|Team||Average Age of Lineups in the 2015-16 Season|
|Tottenham Hotspur||24 years, 325 days|
|Liverpool||25 years, 253 days|
|Newcastle United||25 years, 337 days|
|Manchester United||26 years, 10 days|
|Everton||26 years, 306 days|
Harry Kane, who just turned 23 this July and initially burst onto the scene two years ago, proved he was more than a one-season wonder by outscoring Jamie Vardy to claim the Golden Boot. Dele Alli, only 20, broke out in a big way and took home the PFA Young Player of the Year award. Eric Dier transitioned from center back to defensive midfielder and solidified himself not just in Tottenham’s starting XI but also that of the English national team.
While Tottenham have been viewed as a “selling club” for years -- losing stars like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale to Real Madrid -- it seems like they may finally be turning a corner in this regard, just as construction for their new world-class stadium gets underway.
Captain Hugo Lloris, who was heavily rumored to be on his way out of the club before Pochettino took over, has developed a strong bond with the manager. The same is true of Jan Vertonghen, whose center back pairing with Belgian compatriot Toby Alderweireld may be the best in the league. Still, if the club don’t maintain their upward trajectory, all of that could change rather quickly as several Spurs -- including Pochettino -- may be on the radar of Europe's elite clubs.
Getting his players more experience within his system is one way Pochettino can continue the Tottenham ascendency, but the club must also back him by investing in depth -- particularly with the added burden of the Champions League. The club may have been able to get away with playing weakened sides in the Europa League last season, but that will not be the case in Europe’s premier competition.
Spurs have made a concerted effort to make impact signings on a budget, which meshes perfectly with their manager’s penchant for developing young players. In November of 2014, they brought in Paul Mitchell, who worked with Pochettino at Southampton, to be their head of recruiting. The two men have a shared vision and have shown time and again they know how to target the right type of players to fit their philosophy. In doing so, they have persuaded the shrewdest of negotiators, chairman Daniel Levy, to act early in the transfer market to secure their top targets. That development is as significant a transformation as any that has come about at the club.
There were two glaring needs entering this summer in terms of depth -- cover for striker Harry Kane and for defensive midfielder Eric Dier. The club went out and immediately addressed both. First, aggressive ball-winner Victor Wanyama was brought in from Pochettino and Mitchell’s former club Southampton. Wanyama is already familiar with the manager and his philosophy, which bodes well for a smooth transition into the squad.
Eric Dier played 3,266 Premier League minutes last season – an astounding number for a player adapting to a new position. Having a player of Wanyama’s caliber competing with him for minutes will both ease the burden and push him to keep improving his play.
Next, Spurs signed AZ Alkmaar striker Vincent Janssen. Janssen moved to AZ from the Dutch second division just last summer and was immediately thrust into a starting role. After a quiet start, he scored 20 goals in the second half of the season to finish as the league’s top scorer, finishing with 27 goals. He was awarded with the Johan Cruyff Trophy as the Dutch “Talent of the Year” and was called up to the Netherlands national squad, for whom he registered a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win over England in his first international start.
The player is on a meteoric rise at 22 years of age, and a transfer to join Tottenham’s youth movement certainly seems like it could mutually benefit both the player and the club. Kane played the ninth-most minutes in the league last season with 3,368, the only striker in the top 10. This was as much out of necessity as anything as Spurs lacked a true alternative on the team sheet. Now Tottenham have another Golden Boot winner to share the load.
Spurs have a tougher test ahead of them this season with so many of the big clubs retooling, several top managers coming into the league and the added burden of Champions League.
However, the continued development of their young squad coupled with the chemistry they have already established may give them an edge over rivals trying to integrate big-name signings and new managerial philosophies.
Spurs have already addressed their two biggest weaknesses in terms of depth with players that appear to fit their design perfectly, and Tottenham is likely to make further additions before the transfer window closes. If their returning players build off last season’s improvements and continue to thrive under Pochettino's tutelage, Spurs may be able to challenge for the title again this season.