This time last year, when the Premier League was about to kick off, it was anyone’s guess who was going to win at the end of the season. But one thing was for sure – that the league’s new superstar managers were going to make it one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory.
In the end, it wasn’t quite as close as everyone thought. Chelsea more or less ran away with the title, and the only side to put them under any pressure before they ran away to lift the trophy was Tottenham – the only top-six side whose manager, Mauricio Pochettino, had never won a major trophy. Despite an undoubtedly successful season, he still hasn’t.
If the rest of the league didn’t recognise Spurs as a big player, though, they have now. Perhaps, after finishing third in 2015/16, when Leicester won the league title, the big-spending top six felt that Tottenham – like the Foxes – would fade away. They were in a title race by default that year, it seemed, and once the big-spending new coaches were in place the following season, they’d drop down the table. But that didn’t happen, and Pochettino’s side finished a place higher.
Now the fear of the other managers is starting to show.
Over the last week, both Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte had negative things to say about the north London club. The Manchester United manager commented that Spurs ‘keep everyone they want to keep’, as a way of stating – basically – that Pochettino has effectively spent as much as he has this summer simply by keeping hold of the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and – perhaps most importantly from Mourinho’s point of view – Eric Dier.
“I am not a manager who likes to speak about another club, another manager. I like to show respect. I expect the same from the people who compete with us.”
If those comments are on the right side of logical, it’s only by a hair. But some of the comments from Chelsea boss Conte this week – strangely, as last season he seemed so mild-mannered – are a little more to the point: the point being that the other managers in the top six are both scared and jealous of Spurs.
Conte commented that Spurs’ expectations are lower than they are for the other title rivals. ‘If they don’t win the title, it’s not a tragedy. If they don’t arrive in the Champions League, it’s not a tragedy. If they go out in the first round of the Champions League, it’s not a tragedy. If they go out after the first [knockout] game that they play in the Europa League and go down against Gent, it is not a tragedy,’ he said.
Whether or not you see comments like that as a lack of respect or something approaching the truth is up for debate. What you think it does show is up to you, but it clearly shows something: in the minds of the Premier League’s top managers, either Tottenham are considered the team in the best position to threaten the title, or the team in the worst place.
It could be that Spurs – with their excellent starting XI, the Premier League’s top scorer two years in a row, and the fact that they are the team who scored the most goals and conceded the fewest last season – pose a huge threat to the other sides. Sides who have spent shedloads of money only to see a seemingly less glamorous club with an unusually talented bunch of inexpensively assembled young players take the plaudits through good coaching, organisation and incremental growth.
That would pose an existential threat to the jobs of each of the top six managers – after all, what exactly are Chelsea or Manchester United paying Conte and Mourinho for if Pochettino can achieve their objective with fewer resources.
The other explanation is the opposite, though. We’re less than two weeks away from the start of the Premier League season, and Tottenham are yet to sign anyone. They will have to play at Wembley – a ground they famously hate, and a bigger pitch which doesn’t suit their game – they will have to deal with clubs who, presumably, will be better than they were last season, and they’ll probably have to spend some money if they’re to compete.
That’s something they seem reluctant to do, especially in this summer’s crazy market. As a result, perhaps Conte and Mourinho feel that putting the pressure on Spurs means they’re more likely to crack and drop from title contenders to a team struggling to keep a hold of the top six.
That might be unlikely to happen, and as we saw last year, Spurs didn’t crack, even after not strengthening too much last season. That’s not to say that they didn’t spend money or buy players, but it was only really Victor Wanyama who added anything to their squad – Vincent Janssen and Moussa Sissoko, the other two high-profile signings, didn’t force their way into the team.
But whatever the reason for the mind games that Conte and Mourinho already appear to be playing, they do show how tight the top managers expect this Premier League season to be. The fact they’re attempting to put pressure onto Spurs already is quite telling in that regard. After all, fighting on five fronts is tougher than fighting on four, and if they could knock Spurs out of the running early on, that would make things easier for the rest of the season. With Chelsea traveling to Wembley on only the season’s second weekend, a bad start for Tottenham isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
And so maybe this is more than just two managers who feel like Mauricio Pochettino is getting away with more than they can. Perhaps this is just how the herd mentality are turning on the team they perceive to be the weakest in the pack.