Although they’ve missed out on the title after taking the fight into the final few weeks once again, Tottenham can be rightly proud of their achievements over the last two seasons.
Since Mauricio Pochettino arrived at White Hart Lane, the focus has been on building something to last, and with an exciting young squad who are maturing together and gaining experience of title races and European football, he looks to have done that.
It was the Argentine’s first season in charge which laid the groundwork for what was to come in the next two seasons. In that first year, Spurs conceded 53 goals, ending the season with a goal difference of +5 and a worse defensive record than relegated Hull City. If it weren’t for Harry Kane’s 21 league goals, who knows where they would have finished.
The same can probably be said of any team with a goalscorer, of course. But it wasn’t the attack that was preoccupying Pochettino.
The very next season things changed dramatically: from one of the worst defences in the league (only four teams conceded more) in 14/15, Spurs had the best in 15/16. It was the first time since 1951 that they’d finished the campaign with the best defence in their division. Barring a collapse in the final few weeks of this season, though, they’re about to achieve that for the second time in a row.
It’s an incredible transformation, and has been down to the high pressing game that Spurs have implemented as well as the fact that having a defensive midfielder like Eric Dier, who could drop between the centre backs, meant the side could form a base to press from.
We all know about the system, but when you come into a club with such obvious defensive frailties and turn it into the best defence in the league for two years in a row, there must be more to it than just organisation – there must be something mental involved, too.
Indeed, when you look at Spurs’ record at the start of the last two seasons, you start to see that there is: this is a team who don’t get beaten easily. They’ve only suffered three defeats this season, and six last season (though that does include two in their final two games once the title game was up).
But sometimes when you’re geared up not to lose, you can go too far in that direction: you start to think about not losing rather than risking enough to win. After defeat to Manchester United in the first game of last season, Spurs went 14 games unbeaten between August and December, but they drew eight times in that run. In the first 11 games of this season, over half (six) were drawn.
These two runs to start the last two seasons have ultimately cost Spurs the title both times, leaving them with too much ground to make up on runaway leaders both times.
And so this summer is an important one for Mauricio Pochettino.
Not necessarily because Tottenham need to win a title, or because their best players or even their manager might leave if they don’t do as well next season. But it’s important because this team have played the best football in the league at times this year, and in order to take them to the next level and actually win the league, they need to turn some of those early-season draws into victories.
How do they do that? Well, perhaps the one thing they lack is a player who will take on defenders. There is only one player in Tottenham’s team who completes more than two dribbles per game, and that’s Mousa Dembele. And yet, as important as the Belgian’s ability to carry the ball forward is to the team, he isn’t dribbling past players in the most dangerous areas.
The next best player in the team is Erik Lamela, with 1.7 per game. That’s more like it, but this is a player who hasn’t played for Tottenham since October.
If Pochettino were looking to bring that sort of player into the team, however, there is one option that would kill two birds with one stone. Aside from the fact that Spurs don’t have a player with proven dribbling ability, they also don’t have Premier League winning experience. But there’s one player has both.
Valued by TransferMarkt.com at £25.5m, Leicester City attacker Riyad Mahrez would really fit the bill. He was last season’s player of the year, would bring pace, skill and guile to the side, and in the Champions League this season – arguably a better barometer of Leicester’s form, given their dismal Premier League defence – he has averaged 2.9 dribbles. Far higher than any Spurs player, and certainly in more dangerous areas.
The Telegraph have, today, reported that Leicester would be willing to let him leave this summer, too. And so it would seem like the perfect match: he’s available, and Spurs need a player like him.
Some would have their doubts about his ability to fit into a team who press so hard and so high. But it Pochettino wants to take Spurs to the next level, his squad arguably needs that sort of player. It would be harsh to describe Tottenham’s squad as ‘functional’, in the sense of lacking flair, but they are definitely lacking a player who can break through the lines by himself and score a goal out of nothing.
The first stage in the Pochettino revolution was to shore up the defence, turning defeats into draws. The next step is to turn those hard-fought draws into wins. And you do that by bringing in a player who can do what the rest of your squad can’t.