Tottenham host West Bromwich Albion this weekend, arguably the surprise package of this Premier League season as they tussle with Everton for the crown of ‘best of the rest’. Pairing Tony Pulis’s trademark defensive structure with some attacking flair and cool finishing, they have swept weaker sides away while troubling the top six with a low block 6-3-1.
Spurs come into this match after a comfortable FA Cup victory over Aston Villa and having nullified Chelsea to stride to a 2-0 win in their last league match. Brimming with confidence and on a five game winning streak, Mauricio Pochettino’s side have turned their season around over the festive period and are now only two points behind second-placed Liverpool.
At the heart of their success has been Dele Alli. The former MK Dons midfielder endured an indifferent patch of form at the start of the campaign, but his performances have been on the rise over the last couple of months and he has capped that rejuvenation with a spree of goal scoring. Christian Eriksen, too, has looked back to his very best form, unlocking defences with intelligent passes and finding pockets of space between the defensive lines to drag opposition players out of position.
Harry Kane has been the focal point of the attacking play once again, even if his own goal scoring exploits have been less than spectacular. Pochettino has shown a willingness to change formation when the match requires, which has given the Lilywhites another dimension. Defensively they have looked back to their organised best since the return of Toby Alderweireld, too. Spurs are playing like a team capable of mounting a serious title challenge going into the final months of the season, but they cannot afford to drop points at White Hart Lane if they are going to make a real fight of it.
But while many sides will try to emulate Pulis’ approach, no other teams are as well drilled or have the personnel to be quite as resilient as the Baggies in tricky away fixtures. West Brom have experience down the spine of their side and have looked almost impenetrable at times. Individual error led to an unfortunate defeat against Chelsea, while the performances against Manchester United and Arsenal were equally resolute for parts of the match. Although they fell to defeat in all three matches, the Baggies (particularly against Chelsea and Arsenal) demonstrated their ability to frustrate.
Salomon Rondon and Matt Phillips give West Brom another dimension in attack. Pulis’ deep defensive line that wipes out any room between the lines for the opposition can be restrictive, but Rondon has the technical ability and physical attributes to hold the ball up, while Phillips has the pace and skill to expose a team who have been forced to commit men forward.
West Brom must be stretched across the pitch to be exposed. This is where difficulty may lie for Tottenham, who naturally play with a narrow attacking midfield three and rely on full-backs to provide width. Getting to the byline is almost worthless such are the number of Baggies bodies in the box and there is no chance of finding Eriksen in spaces between the midfield and defence.
Pulis is the expert at upsetting sides who have been scoring freely. The nemesis for teams who are building momentum, in fact. Despite that, Spurs cannot afford to drop points in a home match against a side outside of the top six. However well the Baggies defend and whatever tricks they pull to upset Spurs’ rhythm, Pochettino’s side must find a way to win. Even if it’s the scrappiest of goals or a penalty from a handball shout, their title push relies on victories like these.
Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea have already managed it, but Pulis’ West Brom remain one of the Premier League’s greatest obstacles. An immovable object parked in front of their own goal, with the venom in attack this year to deliver their own knockout blow, we will learn a great deal about Tottenham Hotspur’s title aspirations in this game.