When you start to look for the patterns, they usually appear in some form.
Like how spookily similar Tottenham Hotspur’s starts to Premier League seasons are under Mauricio Pochettino, where poor form gives them a lot to recover from in the second half of the campaign. Or how they just seem to draw too many games without suffering defeats. Take this season, for example: Spurs have lost fewer games than leaders Chelsea, despite the seven-point gap between the two clubs. But draws and a stuttering start is why they find themselves behind.
And then there’s an even spookier one. Exactly one year ago, to the very day, Leicester were top of the table with 69 points – the same count Chelsea currently have – while Tottenham were in second with 62 points – and yes, you’ve guessed it, that’s the exact tally they have right now.
Of course, there are differences: due to EURO 2016, more games had been played by April 3rd last season than have been played this time around. Last season we started earlier and finished earlier, and so Spurs’ 62 points after 29 games this time is a significantly better tally than their total after 32 games last year. But replace Leicester with Chelsea, and it starts to look like a little bit of history repeating, albeit with a slightly better, more mature Tottenham and a rampant, reinvigorated Chelsea.
— Premier League (@premierleague) April 3, 2017
In fact, that’s perhaps the biggest similarity between this season and last. Although Leicester’s title victory was a one-off bolt from the blue which is unlikely to be repeated ever again, Chelsea’s resurgence still hits a similar note. This is a team made up of the champions of the previous season, with a few helpful additions, and so Antonio Conte’s side are hardly a 5000/1 shot. But just as Leicester’s compact 4-4-2 which comprised a defensive solidity and a blistering counter-attack that shocked the league, similarly Conte’s 3-4-3 has been a tactical surprise of Leicester City proportions.
And perhaps that’s where Mauricio Pochettino’s side have been unlucky. They’ve come up against two sides who didn’t just beat the rest of the league, but ‘out-tacticed’ them, too, to borrow a Sam Allardyce-ism.
Chelsea’s defeat at the weekend leaves a small hope of reigniting a title race, but that could get even bigger over the coming weeks. Manchester City travel to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday in arguably Chelsea’s toughest game of the run-in: there’s a real chance that the leaders could drop even more points, and two defeats in a row really would be taken as the signs of a crisis. They will also visit Manchester themselves this month, playing United at Old Trafford; a Jose Mourinho side desperate to avenge their 4-0 humiliation at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, but that was the last time they suffered defeat in the Premier League.
And yet, if it’s a straight shoot-out between Tottenham – the team whose implosion played out so publicly under the lights at Stamford Bridge last year in a game which handed Leicester the title – and Chelsea – a side in which every member of the starting XI except Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso has at least one league winner’s medal to their name – you get the feeling it’ll be the Blues who hold their nerve the longest.
There seems to be an inescapable sense of history repeating. Whilst Chelsea might well drop points, the same was said about Leicester last season, and whilst Tottenham are the team who will pounce if they do, they still contrived to finish third last year, rather than first.
This time 12 months ago, Tottenham were in the same position as now. You’d imagine they’ll have learned from the experience, their young team a year older, a year wiser. And yet their opponent this time is the opposite to what Leicester were last time: they are seasoned winners.
Chelsea could still lose this, but Spurs could still drop further back.