Spurs look to be doing what they do best – being Spurs. No matter what they do they just can’t shake it. Like a snake who just can’t shed its skin, Spurs just can’t stop being Spurs.
Every year something changes. A manager, big signings, the general philosophy around the club, but every year it comes back to the same-old – an acceptable opening few weeks before kicking on, giving their fans hopes of Champions League football only to disappoint them before the end of the season.
It’s too early to speculate whether this season will be any different – there’s some reason to believe that it could be, and I’ll come to that later – but Saturday’s match against Manchester United sums up what Spurs are like. A fluent team filled with happy warriors, threatening to upset the odds and delight their fans, before falling away and ultimately disappointing.
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If Spurs want to go places this season they’ll have to be the Spurs of the first 20 minutes of that game for much longer into games. Against United the played well until an unfortunate own-goal knocked the wind out of their sails.
Towards the end of the game there were encouraging signs too: Pochettino’s pre-season fitness obsession made Spurs look very dangerous in the final few minutes of games last season, and on Saturday they came to life at the end again. Whether that was fitness or simply a need to try to break down a Manchester United side who were happy with a 1-0 victory is hard to say, but it is at least encouraging that Spurs can keep that fitness and heart going this season. It was a positive for them last time out, so they need to be able to build on it.
And that’s what Spurs have been doing in this pre-season: building. The old Spurs, the typical Spurs would have spent lots of money on ‘exciting’ players, like Eriksen and Lamela – although probably in response to the sale of a big star. Still, Spurs teams of the past had a penchant for a big signing. Pochettino seems to prefer actually training his team up to do well rather than buying a ready-made team. He clearly has confidence in his coaching abilities and his ability to mould his current team into a side that can play the way he wants them to play.
And that’s why there’s reason to believe that Spurs may have shed their skin this summer.
They’re still looking for offensive recruits to help out Harry Kane – the latest from France today is that Clinton N’Jie could leave Lyon for Tottenham for a fee of €14m, which could eventually reach €17m. Someone to create goals for Kane is important, but someone to help him score the goals is also hugely important for Spurs, too.
Last season Harry Kane’s goals directly led to 24 points for Spurs. If you take away those points, Spurs just about reach the magic 40 point mark. Not that Spurs wouldn’t have been able to finish every move that Kane managed to finish, but it’s a fair bet to say that they wouldn’t have managed quite as many of them as they did. He needs help this season, especially as he himself could have an off-season. And if he does, the press will call him a one-season wonder.
But the main improvement is at the back. Despite their reliance on Kane, Spurs were simply woeful in defence last season. They conceded the same number of goals as relegated Burnley, and more goals than relegated Hull. Essentially, that’s what killed Spurs’ top four challenge last season. This time they’ve brought in capable defenders, but not for a whole lot of money. They’re simply defenders who Pochettino believes can play in the way he tells them to play. Organisation is the key, rather than individually brilliant defenders, and one look at a Tony Pulis team can show you just how effective that can be.
And yet it’s so very un-Spurs. Buying players who don’t excite, but who will incrementally improve the squad. Bit by bit, Pochettino is improving the squad. They may not be ready for an assault on the top four this season, but next season might just be the aim. In order to do that, Spurs will have to continue to play like the first 20 minutes of their match on Saturday. But bit by bit they will. Maybe by Christmas they’ll manage to play like it for a full half. By the end of the season for most of the game.
Gradual change is the order of the day for Tottenham, and Pochettino seems to know this. It’s not exciting it’s not typical Spurs, but it will be effective in the long run. There are few quick fixes in football, even with bags of money players need to gel and settle in; they’re only human. So why not buy young players who will grow together and gel at the same time? Pochettino will work on their fitness and their organisation, and that’s what will help long term. Spurs need a new look, and they’re shedding their skin to get it.