For a long time Tottenham has been a team that outsiders have enjoyed picking apart, mainly because it’s been easy to do.
Gary Neville did the honours last year, going viral with his suggestion that Tottenham has been “historically never ready” and “weak; weak up here [in the head].” But the details of any particular verbal assault aren’t all that important, even if the brutality of that one was widely acclaimed at the time.
The real heart of the matter has been that, somehow, over a steady period of time, Spurs have continually contrived to do “something” to make itself easy to pick off with cheap cynicism and shallow, viral-ready punditry.
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This “something” could be anything. Tottenham has lost big leads in big games. On multiple occasions they’ve allowed their local rivals, Arsenal, to overtake them in the race for a Champions League place even after being the better-placed team for most of a season. It’s managed to not qualify for the Champions League even when it has actually finished in a position high enough to qualify, because of an old quirk in the rules. And in Harry Redknapp, Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood it’s had managers who were quotable in the wrong kind of way. Also, it signed Paulinho and Roberto Saldado for a lot of money.
Only this season has an honourable change been initiated and a serious achievement been grabbed. After a really good run, lasting as long as any of us can remember, Spurs have finally become kind of difficult to make fun of. That is: The easy options have been taken away. The shortcuts to ridicule have been closed off.
Now, the explanation behind this transformation is obviously multifaceted, so a range of details have to be explored to fully understand it, but ultimately one man operates as the source. Under manager Mauricio Pochettino’s sturdy guardianship a steady stream of changes have taken place ranging from the tactical to the financial and from the incremental to the substantial.
None of them are revolutionary or mercurial, but all of them appear custom built for a team making sure to be difficult to criticize. It’s almost as though he knows what he’s doing.
It starts with his tactics. Where in the past Spurs have been known for being recklessly attacking, now, like someone rummaging through the remains of a Christmas selection box without the picture guide, there’s a subtle blend of caution and freedom. In Pochettino’s team, early pressing up the pitch is followed by a willingness to defend deep and a gentle reluctance to send midfielders and fullbacks into attacks.
Meanwhile, individual forwards and creative players are allowed to move around almost wherever they want when they’re on the ball, at the same time as being expected to cover large distances when moving back towards their own goal.
It’s not amazingly interesting stuff, I’ll grant you, but this broad approach has gone some way to eliminating any really embarrassing moments from the Spurs repertoire—the kind where you’d see four goals conceded in the same half, for instance.
The rest of the way to eliminating those embarrassing moments has been covered by the acquisition of two non-clumsy, non-absentminded centre-backs in the form of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, covered just in front of them by the pretty similar Eric Dier. Bizarrely, the presence of two such sensible centre-backs and one such sensible defensive midfielder in Pochettino’s lineup appears to be not only a first in Tottenham history but also an utterly outstanding quality in the current Premier League setup, positioning Spurs above almost all of its direct opponents in this realm of “not being made to look silly.”
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And then there are the off-pitch affairs, where Spurs have so often gone most wrong in the past. The shift here has come via two routes.
First, Pochettino is naturally a pretty quiet, toned-down screen presence, difficult to define as much of anything from just a few short words in interviews, often lacking strong intonation in any direction. Unlike a Sherwood type, this kind of persona is highly resistant to caricature, because nothing stands out enough to exaggerate and pull apart— a highly useful trait in days where internet memes haunt managerial careers.
Second, and perhaps most powerfully in the arena of perceived seriousness, the Pochettino years at Spurs have coincided with the austerity years. Praise for fielding a string of young, English players such as Harry Kane and Dele Alli has come thick and fast, but what has also happened here is that Spurs have stopped raising its head above the critical parapet in the form of spending big on big names. In terms of avoiding ridicule, the success of the young players is almost a bonus; the real success has simply been to stop spending the kind of money that invites high expectations and detailed examinations.
Now, does any of this mean that Spurs will, for instance, win the league this season? No, probably not. But sitting six points off the top, with the aforementioned selection of good young players, a solid base of experience, decent depth, a coherent style, and some excellent results against the teams around it, the added ability to go about its business quietly—without all that pointing and laughing—can only help.
And if ever there was a season when Spurs could win, it might be this one.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter