If you had offered any Spurs fan a third place finish prior to the start of the 2015/16 season, they would’ve ripped your hand off to take it. Expectations were low following an average first season under Poch, and a relatively quiet transfer window that saw just a few youth players, Toby Alderweireld, and Heung Min Son join the ranks. The rest of the traditional top four clubs were looking strong, and it appeared there wouldn’t be a seat at the table for Tottenham barring another Gareth Bale appearing from out of nowhere to drag them there.
Fast forward a few months, and the season was already turned on it’s head. Chelsea and United were somehow floundering in mid-table. Leicester City were blowing people away with a 600k winger and an over 30 former part-timer leading their attack. Amidst all this turmoil, Tottenham were quietly cementing their spot in the title race as well. Dubbed “youth prospects” prior to the season, Eric Dier and Dele Alli were playing football that belied their tender years. New signing Alderweireld was proving a revelation at the heart of defence. Erik Lamela finally smashed the wall holding him back from truly performing in a lillywhite shirt, and was providing a healthy tally of goals and assists. And though he took half a season to return to his predatory best, Harry Kane was back in form by Christmas to push Spurs even further up the table.
By the time the season drew to a close in May, Spurs had secured third place for their best ever finish in the Premier League era and had beaten the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, City, and United into the promised land of guaranteed Champions League qualification. If a few more games had gone their way, they could easily have been the fairy tale story of the season instead of eventual winners Leicester City. How they managed to go from the predicted 5-6th place finishers to title contenders was plain for fans to see. The passion, work ethic, and discipline inspired by manager Mauricio Pochettino had helped a team significantly weaker than their competitors outperform them over 38 games. Like Leicester, but with considerably more depth and, unfortunately, considerably less Huth.
Given last year’s surprise success, the question on every Spurs fan’s mind this year, myself included, will be whether they can do it all again this campaign. There is certainly already a sense of déjà vu to last season in that Spurs’ transfer window this summer has been relatively quiet compared to our rivals. New boys Vincent Janssen and Victor Wanyama are quality signings, but they both represent a certain gamble. They’re young and likely to improve, sure, but when our competitors are bringing in the likes of Ibrahimovic and Gündoğan, it’s hard not to get a little nervous.
Then there’s the Champions League factor, and how our efforts in the group stage of Europe’s premier club competition might affect our endeavors in the league. While Poch knows what it takes to cope with continental play from his experiences in the Europa League last season, the Champions League is an entirely different beast. Better opponents, greater prestige, and higher expectations are all likely to influence the manager to field very strong XI’s for the games, which means the reserves may be called on more often for difficult Premier League matches. In this context, it’s easy to see why players like Janssen and Wanyama were recruited, as they provide much-needed cover for guys like Kane and Dier, both of whom were visibly tired towards the end of last season having played an obscene amount of minutes.
From a tactical perspective, I don’t expect Poch will change his high energy, pressing style. The players have bought into it, and executed it really well last term as Spurs covered more ground than any team in the league while also notching a high percentage of late (post 80th minute) goals, demonstrating their ability to physically dominate opponents and grind out results. This for me is one of Poch’s greatest managerial achievements; removing the “soft Spurs” stigma and turning us into a side that quite literally runs the opposition out of the game every week.
Personnel-wise, we’re certainly better off than we were last year, with depth secured for positions that have desperately needed it for years at this point. If anymore business is to be done on the incoming front, another speedy winger to stretch opposition defenses might be useful. If I had to get greedy, another centre-back for cover wouldn’t hurt either, especially since Fazio looks to be on his way out of the club. Relative to our rivals, the squad has definitely improved more than Arsenal’s or Leicester’s have, but also clearly not as much as Chelsea, United, and City, as of yet.
It is those last three clubs, all of which boast new and high profile managers, that I expect to be our primary competition for a top three position. Leicester have lost their midfield engine in Kanté and will certainly fail to repeat last year’s heroics with their added European duties, and Arsenal have made just one major signing in Xhaka that fails to address their biggest issues in defense and attack. But the Manchester clubs and Chelsea scare me, because they combine a crazy amount of talent with managers who have proven they know how to get the most out of said talent.
All told, I think it’s going to be a tough ask for us to improve our finish from last season, but a top four position while making a good showing in the Champions League is definitely possible. We haven’t lost any major talent, we’ve brought in players to plug the few gaps that we had, and we have one of the better managers in the league leading us. I’ll go on record as saying I expect us to finish 4th this year, while making at least the quarter-final of the Champions League barring an impossible draw.